Does anyone remember the New Orleans flood — remember not just the death and destruction, the pain and loss, but the directives given at the time by federal, state, and local government leaders?

Does anyone remember that president George Bush urged a crackdown on looters (“I think there ought to be zero tolerance of people breaking the law during an emergency such as this”)? Does anyone remember that mayor Ray Nagin told police to cease search-and-rescue efforts and stop looters instead (“They are starting to get closer to heavily populated areas — hotels, hospitals — and we’re going to stop it right now”)? Does anyone remember that governor Kathleen Blanco threatened looters with death at the hands of the National Guard (“These troops know how to shoot and kill . . . and I expect they will”)? Does anyone remember that in a city abandoned by its government at every level, the government’s highest priority was not to ensure the sanctity of life but to ensure the sanctity of property?

For anyone who might have forgotten the New Orleans flood, the Ann Arbor Summer Festival has arranged a musical reminder four days before the festival officially opens. On Tuesday, June 13, at the Power Center, Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint — along with Toussaint’s Crescent City Horns, guitarist Anthony Brown, and Costello’s band the Imposters — will perform songs from their new CD, The River in Reverse. Costello, the last of the New Wave’s angry young men, is renowned for his brilliant lyrics, passionate performances, and restless intellect. Toussaint, the elder statesman of New Orleans funk and soul, is familiar for his long string of hits written for artists from Al Hirt to Ernie K-Doe to Doctor John. Their new CD together has seven songs from Toussaint’s catalog plus five new songs by Costello and Toussaint, and one new song, the title song, written by Costello.

Recorded in New Orleans and in Los Angeles last November and December, The River in Reverse is a musical meeting of two fine minds, two strong hearts, and two compassionate spirits. The only overtly, albeit obliquely, political songs are the title song (“How long does a promise last? How long can a lie be told?”) and the collaboratively written “Broken Promise Land” (“In the name of the Father and the Son/In the name of gasoline and gun”). But all the songs, even the older ones, take on a political resonance in this postdiluvian context. In the opening song, a cover of Lee Dorsey’s recording of Toussaint’s “On the Way Down,” Costello leaves out the word girl in the second verse, and, all at once, a song that used to be about an uppity woman who left the old neighborhood behind turns into a song about the high and the mighty due for a fall: “It’s high time that you found/The same dudes you misuse on your way up/You might meet up on your way down.”

For Bush, Blanco, Nagin, and anyone else who might have forgotten that lesson, Elvis and Allen are here to testify.

[Review published June 2006]