Harry Connick Jr. closed out his fall New Orleans’ Tricentennial Celebration tour by bringing a heaping helping of Big Easy flavor to a sold-out Stifel Theatre on Thursday.
“It’s the last night of our tour,” Connick said early on. “We’re going to leave every possible thing we have out on this stage tonight.”
The Crescent City native and his nine-piece band, plus tap-dancing wizard Luke Hawkins, lived up to that promise with a two-hour concert that began and ended with New Orleans-style street parades. In between were hit songs from his storied career, holiday favorites, and dazzling instrumental work .
The show kicked off with “Bourbon Street Parade,” and Connick further established the theme with “Take Her to the Mardi Gras.” But with many other areas to cover, he quickly switched to some of the hit material from early in his career, including “We Are in Love” as well as songs from his soundtrack for “When Harry Met Sally”: the romantic “Love Is Here to Stay” and “It Had to Be You” and the rollicking instrumental “Stompin’ at the Savoy.”
He went back even further than that, playing a brief recording of himself as a 9-year-old prodigy, singing King Oliver’s “Doctor Jazz” in a voice imitative of Louis Armstrong. “I did not realize when I was 8 or 9 that it was about a drug dealer,” he said. He and his band then performed the song in full and, indeed — yikes. Better to sing that song as an adult, probably.
Connick’s easygoing stage manner carries an appeal that transcends the music. He told stories, chatted with a 4-year-old girl in the front row (“Do you have any idea who I am?” he asked her) and displayed plenty of generosity as a bandleader, giving considerable time in the spotlight to trombonist Lucien Barbarin, saxophonist Jerry Weldon and guitarist Jonathan DuBose Jr.
He especially singled out and showcased his longtime bassist, Neal Caine, a University City native. “This guy — he’s my kid brother. I’d do anything for him,” Connick said.
Turning to the holiday season, Connick offered the classics “Sleigh Ride” and a slow — and sad, he pointed out — “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” plus his own “(It Must’ve Been Ol’) Santa Claus.” In the middle of that segment was a wild guitar showcase for DuBose that segued somewhat jarringly into a reverent gospel number, “How Great Thou Art.”
Returning to New Orleans, Connick talked about one of his mentors, James Booker, and played his tribute to the late, great pianist, “Hear Me in the Harmony,” following that with a funk number, Allen Toussaint’s “Yes We Can Can.”
Slipping into some tap shoes, Connick brought out dancer and choreographer Luke Hawkins. The pair did a few steps together, and then Connick turned Hawkins loose for some truly fancy footwork.
The closing number featured a New Orleans jazz funeral procession. Starting with a slow, solemn “Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” it turned into a second-line celebration with “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Connick played a bass drum, leaving Hawkins to lead the parade up one of the theater’s aisles and down another.
The encore was a demonstration of a one-man band contraption that came to Connick in a dream. He played “Big Chief,” using foot pedals to thump the bass drum with his right foot and snare drum with his left while playing keyboards on either side of him with his hands.
It was an impressive, if odd display. But if Connick’s career — which has seen him continually expand his range as an entertainer from musician to actor to Broadway composer to television host — suggests anything, it’s that when he puts his mind and work ethic toward a goal, sooner or later he will be able to achieve it.