Henry Butler, presented by the Santa Barbara Blues

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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