New Orleans Jazz Piano and Chicago Blues
Jazz Alley (Seattle)
November 28, 2000
Last night Henry Butler and Alvin Youngblood Hart landed and took off again for a regrettably short three-day stint at Dimitrious' Jazz Alley through Thursday. The relatively light Tuesday night turnout was in total contradiction to the level of musicianship and performance demonstrated; many Seattleites simply don't know or understand just who's in town. They should. To simply state that Henry Butler is both giant and genius is insufficient; to say that "Youngblood" Hart is a fine blues man is accurate, but again, falls short.
Hart, a formidable-looking man with ropes of chopstick dreads sweeping back across his head, quietly and unpretentiously took the stage. His 6' 4", 240 pound, linebacker presence belies what appears to be an endearing natural shyness. He began the set playing bottleneck on Dobro with, "My Momma, She Done Put Me Down." The tune was ear catching, and introduced what was to be an entertaining set of down home blues of the Leadbelly, Robert Johnson, and Howlin' Wolf ilk.
It is always a pleasure to listen to solo performances on a good sound system, and this night was no exception. Youngblood rolled through his repertoire switching among 12- and 6- string guitars and dobro. Sometimes he'd bottleneck, sometimes he'd slide, yet the musicianship unfailingly and faithfully conveyed the "my-baby-done-left-me" blues philosphy. He tore off a couple of Charlie Batten songs, including an enjoyable plinky- plunky version on guitar of "Pony Blue." Leadbelly was also paid tribute on, "Baby, Please Don't Go Out of New Orleans" and on the climactic 12-string finale, "Gallows Pole," which warned, "Chase the silver, chase the gold, you still gon' end up on the gallows pole". Hart later disclosed that this was actually an old English folk song from Elizabethan times. The set proved to be an enjoyable cornbread appetizer for what was to come.
Henry Butler, blind from infancy, was led to the stage. For a man who can't see, he not only moved gracefully, he was quite a sight for those who can. Attired in a narrow-rimmed 40's black felt hat and a goo-goo-wavy iridescent silk shirt and dark glasses, Henry's presence effortlessly commanded all eyes. When he began to play it felt like someone had goosed the voltage.
He launched into "Dr. James" in his inimitable rollicking New Orleans style, giving no shelter to any piano key on earth. His hands are independent, and he uses them differently depending on what he's trying to convey. On "Voodoo Man" there was percussive left-to-right call and response. Later both hands wailed off in their own worlds of deep delta funk. There was even a point during his composition, "Marriage Blues," where after departing from the tune's honky-tonk motif, he gave each hand its own turn to solo, before combining them both in a voracious climax of sound and fury. His rendition of "CC Rider," normally a standard blues yawner, found my pen involuntarily loosened and my body hypnotically gyrating to his vocal ministrations. As the set progressed through his 10 or so tunes, the audience ebbed and flowed in the irrepressible tides of Butler's silence and fullness.
Butler is a remarkable lyricist. On the tune "Oh Babe, Do Something Too, for Love", the lyric, "Women put on their seduction shoes / Me, I run as fast I can," nearly knocked me off my chair. Or, "It don't even matter if you're young or old, if you can't move that thing you got a hole in your soul." At times he sang, at times he used his voice like a wah-wah pedal. Wherever your mind could go he'd take you, and then lead you further.
When he left the bandstand, this reviewer uttered, "Man, them was some serious hamhocks, cabbage, and hot pepper!" For Butler, musician extraordinaire, the keyboard is his castle, and his voice lights up the sky. Don't miss him, his music is a rare treat.