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We all agreed that this was an important song to share at this moment in history
KEVIN DAVIS: Perhaps befitting an album conceived in the wake of a tragic natural disaster, I’ve noticed that my last two listens to Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint’s The River in Reverse have both been prompted by sad events. First, it was Toussaint’s passing last year, which I’m sure prompted many the Elvis fan to put on and savor this record; most recently, though, it’s been the infuriating surge in hate crime and hate speech in the days following the 2016 American presidential election. As my co-author, editor, and I were discussing Elvis’s music and its relevance to the horror show of events that has been unfolding across the nation this month, EC and Toussaint’s recording of “Who’s Gonna Help Brother Get Further” was brought up, and immediately we all agreed that it was an important song to share with the world during this particular moment in history, unusual a choice though it may seem for this particular column. I say that because this song arguably accounts for the single most diminished role Elvis himself plays in a song on one of his own albums: He didn’t write it (it’s a Toussaint original, most famously recorded by Lee Dorsey), from what I can tell doesn’t play an instrument on it, and doesn’t sing lead on it, save for one verse at the end – for all intents and purposes, this is “Allen Toussaint and the Imposters feat. Elvis Costello.” Which is fine – The River in Reverse, though pretty clearly a product of Costello’s vision, is ultimately a collaborative work between the two men, and just because Toussaint is duly given a position of prominence in the performance doesn’t mean you can’t detect Elvis’s hand guiding the proceedings. The Imposters join the Crescent City Horns to form a sort of all-star house band for Costello and Toussaint, and with Allen at the helm they turn in one of the most dignified and empathetic performances on the record.
JORGE FARAH: As fanatical as we are about Elvis Costello and his own original songs—fanatical enough to devote a weekly column to them—one of my favorite things about him is his deference to other musicians. The deep respect and enthusiasm he exhibits for the acts who inspire him, expressed through his tireless championing of their catalogues as well as many collaborations over the years. Personally, I know my life has been enrichened by the artists he’s brought to my attention, whether they be peers like Dave Edmunds and Squeeze, early luminaries like Charles Brown and Solomon Burke, or up-and-comers like Larkin Poe. Because Allen Toussaint is such a hugely influential figure in American popular music, I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that he is also one of those people whose work I was first exposed to through his partnership with EC. I don’t have much of an excuse for that; as a punk-obsessed teenager in Colombia, his music was just never really in my radar beyond Devo’s cover of “Working in the Coal Mine.” Still, The River in Reverse—part collaborative songwriting exercise, part celebration of Toussaint’s songbook, part tribute to the musical heritage and resilience of the people of New Orleans in the wake of devastating loss—proved a wonderful introduction to the man’s work. Better to be late to the party than to not arrive at all.
The collaborative spirit underlines the song’s message — an affirmation for these turbulent times
“Who’s Gonna Help a Brother Get Further” is, in all of its recorded forms, a heck of a song. A funky, swaggering message of comradery in the face of uncertainty, good-natured enough to not succumb to the righteous anger that simmers below the surface and creeps up in the jagged edges of the song’s refrain. The River in Reverse version features some truly amazing playing by Toussaint, The Imposters, and the Crescent City Horns, the latter absolutely stealing the show the moment “Big Sam” Williams delivers a trombone solo so ferocious that it’s a wonder how it could physically be committed to tape. The undisputed star of the track is Toussaint himself, whose playing—elegant and fanciful as ever—drives the song forward, and whose vocals have an effortless swagger that contribute to the song’s unencumbered strut. Another key player (no pun intended) is Steve Nieve, whose organ can be heard discretely panned to the right channel, opposite Toussaint’s grand piano, coloring around the harmony with some improvisational shapes. As for Elvis’s reduced role, I’m fine with it—as Kevin put it, even though this is Toussaint’s song, EC is very much the architect of this project, and knowing when to step back and let someone else tell their story is very much in keeping with the spirit of the album. Besides, it’s fun to hear him in background-singer mode, interjecting with occasional “ooo”s and “gone gone gone”s before he steps in for his verse. The collaborative spirit underlines the song’s message; the question it repeats is “who’s gonna help us get further?”, and the answer is an assertive “one another.” An important affirmation for these turbulent times.
For all the bitter truth in its message, this is a downright fun song
KEVIN DAVIS: Jorge’s comment about the song refusing to surrender to the anger at its center rings very true to me – for all the bitter truth in its message, “Who’s Gonna Help Brother Get Further” is a downright fun song, with instances of wordplay that aren’t terribly far outside Costello’s own wheelhouse (“What happened to the Liberty Bell/I heard so much about?/Did it really ding-dong?/It must have dinged wrong/It didn’t ding long” – I’m sure I’m not the only one that could imagine having pulled this from the liner notes to Get Happy!). A video of the performance, available on the documentary Putting the River in Reverse (included as a bonus DVD with the CD version of the album), exacerbates this feeling, as we watch Elvis and Imposters’ bassist Davey Faragher having the time of their lives singing backing vocals, Steve Nieve going to town on the organ in characteristic mad scientist fashion, members of the Crescent City Horns adding various emphatic flourishes and taking the occasional solo (such as the scorcher Jorge mentions above), and of course Toussaint himself, his narrator the very picture of grace under pressure – here we have something of a micro version of the world this song longs for without explicitly stating as much, an instance of individuals diverse of background and lifestyle coming together to achieve a common goal, reveling in one another’s unique talents and gifts. Holding on to that sense of joy seems like such an important lesson, perhaps now more than ever – that, as valuable as it is to speak out against what we don’t want the world to be, it’s equally if not more critical to embody what we do want it to be. Horror shows comprise individual scenes. Let’s make it harder for the filmmakers to piece one together.
Songs of unity, songs of hope, songs of despair, songs of love . . . is there any kind of song that isn’t on our ongoing playlist of Elvis Costello Songs Of The Week? Find out below: