Working on the Blues Train

Henry Butler, presented by the Santa Barbara Blues Society.

At Warren Hall, Saturday, March 4.

It was a definitively special night last Saturday at Warren Hall, when Henry Butler came to town for the 29th anniversary of the Santa Barbara Blues Society and showered the crowd with good-vibing New Orleans piano. Some revelers here might have been skeptical seeing a stage adorned with only a piano, which contrasts with the usual full-band model in this hall. But Butler quickly showed them just how much music he can coax out of his instrument, stirring in his limber and soulful voice to make a sound like a band under one hat.

A New Orleans native whose house was devastated by Hurricane Katrina, Butler delivered two powerful sets of tunes which both showed his unique keyboard prowess and sparked up our timely sympathies for the plight of the great American musical nucleus that is New Orleans. Butler’s a musical wonder, as well as an entertainer, like when he, blind since birth, turned from the piano and, flashing a grin, said, “I just need to look at you for a minute.” (Butler is also a photographer who has exhibited his images.) Opening the second set, he cooked up a New Orleans-flavored version of “You Are My Sunshine,” and then dove into a Butler-ized arrangement of “Tippitina.” He played tributes to two of his biggest piano heroes, James Booker and Professor Longhair, ending the show with “Ode to Fess,” also the closer of his latest album, Homeland.

Without a doubt, this was one of the finer Blues Society soirées in recent memory. For longtime Butler fans, though, the evening was also a bit of a tease. Butler, a versatile and musically literate pianist who first burst on the scene as a jazz player in the late ’80s, has lately reinvented himself along more blues/New Orleans/R&B lines. More to the point, he has allowed himself to pursue that stylistic road, generally leaving his jazz instincts safely tucked away.

But even during Saturday night’s party-time occasion, fleeting flashes of his jazz savvy slipped out: Amid the rocking and riffing, a burst of harmonically clenched jazz virtuosity would appear, reminding us that Butler is one of precious few musicians anywhere who can successfully and fluently shift from the jazz world to rootsier enclaves. He could have played an entirely different show the next night in a jazz venue, and similarly wowed the crowd. That point notwithstanding, there was no question of the considerable wow-factor in the house this night. ■

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