in performance: henry butler

Henry Butler. Photo by David Richmond.

At several points during his scholarly soulful solo performance last night at the Norton Center for the Arts’ Weisiger Theatre in Danville, Henry Butler discussed his driving and prospective piloting prowess with the audience. At one point, he even suggested he might someday move to Kentucky to start a taxi service for inebriated revelers. His reasoning? That drunk customers would neither know nor care he was blind.

Such self-effacing remarks were part of the demeanor for this veteran New Orleans pianist and song stylist, but they were also a collective reflection of something more demonstrative – that the blindness Butler has dealt with since infancy has in no way hindered a performance career that has stretched on for nearly a half century or a level of musicianship that still sounded exact and playful during this 75 minute concert.

Butler’s repertoire through the decades has been far reaching, but the bulk of this performance stayed close to home with roughly half of the program focused on works from, or inspired by, three of his famed New Orleans piano brethren – James Booker, Professor Longhair and Allen Toussaint.

From Booker, he developed a left hand stride that syncopated “Les Près Des James” (a Butler penned tribute to Booker) and “Booker Time” with an effervescence that could viewed as a precursor to piano boogie woogie. From one time mentor Longhair, he offered a wild exercise in rhythm within “Tipitina” that employed deceptively nonsense lyrics (“Tipitina, oola malla walla dalla”) to enforce the tune’s immensely animated feel. “If you’re looking for meaning in these lyrics,” Butler said, “chill out.” Finally, from the mighty Toussaint, Booker exacted songcraft in the form of the pop/blues staple “Working in a Coal Mine.”

But there were also moments when Butler, and the striking profile he cast as his long spidery fingers hit the keys, let the music open enough to stroll away from Crescent City. That’s what happened in the show-opening original “Samba C,” which sounded like Chick Corea had his sense of jazz glee been rooted in the South. You also heard it as staples like “In My Solitude” and “Rock Island Line” took sudden dashes in and around their familiar melodies.

The most telling summation of all these traits, however, coalesced in an encore cover of the 1973 Billy Preston hit “Will it Go ‘Round in Circles.” It began as a slow, mournful and wholly unrecognizable blues with Butler’s usually buoyant singing held to a mere whisper. Then the music stopped, shifted gears and re-emerged as the party piece Preston always envisioned it as, but with a proud New Orleans accent Butler can proudly claim as his own.

Such a mash-up exemplified the studious but mischievous adventures that result when Butler takes the wheel.

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