SPECTACLE REPORT: ELVIS COSTELLO WITH… Southern Knights: Levon Helm and Allen Toussaint

The legendary Levon Helm at the drums on SPECTACLE.

On this week’s SPECTACLE, Elvis Costello assembles a band of musical legends. At its heart are two artists who act as living links to the traditions of the American South – drummer Levon Helm and pianist Allen Toussaint.

Arkansas-born Helm, best known as one of the founders and lead singers of the immortal band called The Band, truly plays to the beat of a different drum. As Toussaint describes Helm’s style in this episode, “he plays all upside-down and in-between, and on the side sometimes – he got his own world.”

Helm was fighting a throat problem for this taping, so we don’t get the chance to hear the astonishing voice behind “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “Up on Cripple Creek.” The loose, sneaky groove that powered “The Weight” and The Band’s recordings with Bob Dylan, though, is displayed in all its glory.

In the late 1990s, Helm was diagnosed with throat cancer; to help fund his medical treatments and keep him working, he began hosting jam sessions known as “The Midnight Ramble” at his home studio in Woodstock. He resumed singing in 2004, and since then, his shows have taken on the feel of revival meetings. Helm’s 2007 album Dirt Farmer won the Grammy for Traditional Folk Album, and this year’s follow-up, Electric Dirt, has been nominated in the Best Americana Album category.

Allen Toussaint has become perhaps the leading ambassador for the music of New Orleans. In the 1960s, after establishing himself as a writer and producer for local artists (Ernie K-Doe, the Nevilles, Lee Dorsey), his songs started to be recorded by the likes of Otis Redding, the Who, the Yardbirds, and the O’Jays. In the 1970s, his work resulted in massive hits for Paul McCartney, LaBelle (“Lady Marmalade”), Boz Scaggs, and Glen Campbell (“Southern Nights”).

Allen Toussaint on SPECTACLE

But, as Elvis explains in the episode, Toussaint seldom toured or spent much time outside of New Orleans. Following Hurricane Katrina, though, he took up residence in New York City, and started gaining a higher profile. In 2006, Toussaint and Costello collaborated on The River in Reverse album, and this year he released the acclaimed celebration of jazz in New Orleans, The Bright Mississippi, which is nominated for a Grammy in the Best Jazz Instrumental category.

Helm and Toussaint have worked together before: The producer contributed horn arrangements to The Band’s 1971 album Cahoots, and to its classic live album Rock of Ages. In Helm’s 1993 autobiography This Wheel’s on Fire, he describes Toussaint as “maybe the greatest arranger-writer-producer the Crescent City ever gave us.” Toussaint’s horn charts, Helm wrote, “were like crowning our music with spiritual gold, like having a great wizard travel from a far-off land to bestow his wisdom on us.”