Review: Allen Toussaint at Ronnie Scott’s

Simon Adams finds the Crescent City songsmith in fine, bluesy form, reclaiming the tune that once - to the surprise of many - was the soundtrack to Boots TV commercials

I’ve had some odd experiences listening to live music before, but none so surreal as hearing Allen Toussaint launch into Here Come The Girls, best known in this country as the song Boots the chemist used in their ads back in 2007 (and since then sampled extensively by the Sugababes). It’s a cheesy song, and odd outside its commercial context, but never in a million years did I guess that Toussaint himself was its composer, back in 1970. I wasn’t the only person in the audience at Ronnie Scott’s to draw in a deep breath.

But then that is the sort of man he is, an unclassifiable singer-songwriter now in his mid-70s who is also a consummate pianist and singer. In reality, Toussaint has always been more of a backroom man, famed as a record producer and studio boss in his native New Orleans. Over the years he has written and produced songs for a host of singers and bands, most notably Lee Dorsey, for whom he wrote Working In The Coalmine, Patti Labelle, and the Pointer Sisters - Yes We Can Can a particularly funky highlight of the evening. But as a performer, he is a genial presence at the piano, sketching in his massive back catalogue and spinning a good yarn about the songs he is singing, loving the life in London, and his childhood in New Orleans.

The night I caught him he mixed the known and the unexpected. His 1962 two-sided hit songs for Benny Spellman, Lipstick Traces and Fortune Teller, both got an airing, the latter familiar for its cover recently by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. So too did Pain In My Heart, covered by both Otis Redding and the Rolling Stones. He fondly remembered working with the now overlooked Scottish soul singer Frankie Miller, who covered Brickyard Blues, and paid his dues to songs of his covered by both the Grateful Dead and Aaron Neville, as well as the now totally forgotten Canadian harmonica player King Biscuit.

Throughout, Toussaint laid down some inimitable piano work, an updated version of Professor Longhair in its slow moving bass lines and tumbling treble. He is a fine blues musician, and steeped through and through in the very soul of New Orleans. If at times he sounds like Doctor John, that is to be expected, but I also heard the wry confessional of Randy Newman, and that is high praise indeed.

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