Critics and musicians routinely refer to veteran New Orleans pianist Henry Butler as "a genius." An eclectic virtuoso who’s studied everything from avant-garde jazz to opera to New Orleans R&B, Butler plays piano like he has four hands instead of two. As talented as Butler is, I’ve preferred his jazz and R&B albums to his blues releases, simply because the latter have been too ornate to suit my crude tastes.
Vu-Du Menz is more down-and-dirty than Butler’s past blues albums, no doubt because the pianist is teamed here with Corey Harris, the rootsy young guitarist, singer and blues rejuvenator. Rejuvenation is the word that best describes Vu-Du Menz, a collection of acoustic originals that possess a very traditional blues sound, but with modern lyrics.
All 15 tracks present the duo without any sidemen. Instrumentally, Vu-Du Menz is mostly Butler’s show, and at times his barrelhouse style is amazing. His playing combines a traditional blues approach with New Orleans touches learned at the feet of Professor Longhair and James Booker. (The song "L’Espirit De James" is a tribute to Booker.) Both Butler and Harris sing with gusto, but the latter’s raspy voice is the more appealing.
Corey Harris is one of the most perceptive lyricists in contemporary blues, and he proves it again here. Take "Mulberry Row," the most interesting song on the CD. The tune's subject is the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings, and it starts with Harris singing these lines: "Masta Tom do what he please/But he can’t hide his deed/Somethin’ y’all refuse to believe/But the fruit don’t fall far from the tree." Harris also brings history to life on "King Cotton," a country-blues monody that describes the pain and drudgery of a field hand’s life.
There are plenty of upbeat tunes here as well. "Voodoo Man" offers an unbelievable performance by Butler that incorporates blues, New Orleans R&B and jazz idioms. "If You Let a Man Kick You Once" is a fun ragtime number. "Shake What Your Mama Gave You" is one of the few tracks wherein Butler and Harris play off of one another. It’s a delightful tune that even has the duo harmonizing on the chorus. The album closes with a strirring a capella version of the hymn "Why Don’t You Live So God Can Use You?"
Surprisingly Harris and Butler don’t interact much instrumentally, but their collaboration still calls to mind the 1920’s piano/guitar alliances between Tampa Red and Georgia Tom. With its old-timey ambience, Butler’s frilly piano, Harris’ smart lyrics, and a nice mix of good-time tunes and serious numbers, Vu Du Menz has plenty going for it.