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New Orleans Comes to Denver: Henry Butler and Groovesect

Geoff Anderson By

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Henry Butler and Groovesect
Lannie's Clocktower Cabaret/KUVO
Denver, Colorado
December 14-15, 2007

Snow didn't come to New Orleans, but New Orleans came to Denver this weekend in the form of a heapin' helpin' of musical gumbo, jambalaya and soul-nourishing funk. Friday night, as the latest snowstorm was petering out, Henry Butler brought his New Orleans sound to a packed Lannie's Clocktower Cabaret. The next afternoon, Groovesect, a young New Orleans band funked up the KUVO studio in a live broadcast during KUVO's annual volunteer party.

Henry Butler's piano playing simply has to be heard and seen to be believed. He has technique that could only have been developed over tens of thousands of hours of practice. His hands are truly independent, related only because they're usually playing the same song. On a few tunes the blind pianist would raise his left hand as much as 4 to 6 inches off the keyboard for an aerial, percussive attack. He tends not to let any keys go to waste, using all 88. If the piano had 100 keys, he'd probably use all those too.

After Katrina, Butler relocated from New Orleans to Denver, but he still tours a fair bit. In fact one of the things he likes about Denver is the airport. Nevertheless, he still plays around the area several times a year; yet another local treat. In his solo show Friday night, he started with a couple of Monk tunes—"Rhythm-A- Ning," then "Well You Needn't. The latter featured a loping, almost C&W-sounding left hand. He followed the Monk tunes with a couple originals he recorded back in the last century, the Latin-tinged "Samba C and then "Orleans Inspiration."

One characteristic of Butler is his eclecticism. He told the audience early in the show, "If you don't like what you're hearing right now, stick around, there's bound to be something you like soon. Kind of like the weather. He ventured into a bluesy version of "Basin Street Blues," then broke out the first vocal of the evening with "Something You Got." He introduced the tune by noting the highly intellectual subject matter of some classic New Orleans lyrics—things like "Sitting here la, la, waiting for my ya, ya. Hey, New Orleans music is for a good time, not necessarily to save the world.

Butler's second set was all vocals, including some classic covers like "Working in a Coal Mine and "Sitting on the Dock of the Bay." "Coal Mine was particularly fun, not sounding at all like the Lee Dorsey oldie or Devo's more manic version. Butler turned it inside out and put his own stamp on it. For the blues shouter "Roll 'em Pete, proprietress Lannie Garrett joined him on vocals, adding some female energy. Butler wrapped it up by getting back to his New Orleans roots with Professor Longhair's "Mardi Gras in New Orleans.

But the New Orleans attack on Denver wasn't over. The next afternoon, Groovesect laid down some funky grooves in the state-of-the-art KUVO performance studio. Because the annual volunteer Christmas party was going on at the same time, the studio was packed. Inexplicably, somebody set up three rows of chairs for the audience. But this is not sitting-down music. I don't even know how those sitting could do it— maybe with some movin' and groovin' in their chairs. I remained standing so I could bounce around, but a few times I looked over at the seating area and saw a couple dozen heads all moving back and forth in unison, kind of like small waves sloshing back and forth in a bucket.

Groovesect is a band of mainly twenty-something musicians from New Orleans, keeping the funk tradition and New Orleans music, in general, alive in a post-Katrina world. The band was joined Saturday afternoon by James Brown alum Fred Wesley on trombone and vocals. Wesley joins the band on several tunes on their new album On the Brim. Another notable band member is Alfred "Uganda Roberts on congas. Roberts is a New Orleans funk veteran with a resume that includes Dr. John, Allen Toussaint, the Meters and Professor Longhair.

Groovesect mixed some of their originals with funk classics like "Chameleon, "Pass the Peas, "It's a House Party and James Brown's "Gonna Have a Funky Good Time (Doing it to Death). The band was scheduled to play about 30 to 40 minutes but ended up going an hour and a half. The audience members weren't the only ones having fun. About half way through the set, Henry Butler showed up and got behind the piano. His virtuosity ratcheted up an already nearly incendiary atmosphere even higher. Butler's blistering solos in the midst of the Groovesect funk machine opened yet another door to his musical house. To put an exclamation point on the whole thing, KUVO Blues Show host and bona fide blues man Sam Mayfield showed up with this guitar and led the band in an extended blues shuffle/solo vehicle for most of the band members.

The snow on the ground outside didn't all quite melt during these two sets, but at least us Northern folk got to warm up with some hot music from Southern climes.


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