written by Chris Familton
The Sydney Opera House is always a venue that delivers on quality sound and a comfortable environment for experiencing live music but sometimes the music that it hosts doesn’t quite connect with the surroundings. That was one of the concerns ahead of this triple headline show featuring New Orleans legends Jon Cleary, Dirty Dozen Brass Band and the great Allen Toussaint. For the most part those concerns were allayed but there was a niggling suspicion that it would have been a much more celebratory and immersive experience if it had been at a smaller venue.
Jon Cleary opened the evening with his trio of piano, upright bass and drums and with his infectious manner and playful approach to blues, funk and jazz he set the upbeat tone for the rest of the night. He showed his versatility with covers of Professor Longhair and Jelly Roll Morton alongside more soulful 70s ballads that verged on easy listening – like the tribute to the missing folk of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The band were super tight but had a sense of fun too – playing with the dynamics of the songs just on the right side of showing off. The standout was When You Get Back that flowed effortlessly and rode that fine line between too smooth and gritty funk.
Dirty Dozen Brass Band took things to another level entirely with their set of Mardi Gras funk that was all about partying. It took a bit of coaxing but they managed to get the entire Opera House audience on their feet to clap and dance along. It was nice to see a crowd willing to get involved and cut loose from their comfortable seats, if only for a few songs. Numbering seven members, the core of the band have been playing together for 34 years and it showed with an almost telepathic sense of playing off each other, sharing solos and indulging in good natured humour. The sousaphone player Kirk Joseph in particular showed enormous endurance on the massive horn, filling the role of bass player and nailing the music to the floor. The band know that a solo can easily outstay its welcome so they kept things short and to the point most of the time, playing up to the Mardi Gras heritage with a rousing rendition of When The Saints and a brass cover of James Brown’s Super Bad that kept the crowd on their feet to the end.
Allen Toussaint was never going to match the celebratory vibe of the previous act but when you are a legend such as he is you don’t need to compete. He followed his band out in a resplendent sparkling, sequined suit with a grin a mile wide. Toussaint is an exquisite pianist, able to play fleeting runs up and down the keys with a lightness of hand before dropping hard hitting funk chords that are as brutally rhythmic as they are melodic. Choosing to mix a few slower tunes into his set meant that the fervor created by Dirty Dozen Brass Band dissipated somewhat and a small number of people with either low attention span or an urge to avoid another hour of parking charges scuttled towards the exits. Toussaint played a brilliant medley of A Certain Girl, Mother In Law, Fortune Teller and Working in a Coalmine. It showed what a stellar songwriter he is, having penned numerous songs made famous by others. Case in point was Get Out of My Life Woman with Toussaint playing the best version of it that I’ve heard. Bass and guitar solos showed the brilliant playing abilities of his band but it was clear that Toussaint was the man that deserved all the plaudits both for this performance and his career. If there were any faults with the evening it was the us and them feel of the show and the running order of the acts. Dirty Dozen Brass Band would have provided a much stronger finale in terms of bringing the jazz, funk and soul to a heady climax.
this review first appeared on FasterLouder