john boutté asks questions and answers needs.
This New York morning was unseasonably chilly, which made me miss New Orleans all the more. Yet I'm still basking in the warm glow of John Boutté's triumphant performance at Joe's Pub in Manhattan last night: He channeled so much of the city I've come to revere and adore and spilled it forth with characteristic grace and personal style, that, well, I'm good--for now.
Joe's was packed, the audience quickly hushed into a silence broken only by the handclaps Boutté encouraged here and there, and the applause that punctuated the performance and grew more emphatic as the evening progressed.
Not even the subway's rumble beneath the club, which has bothered more than one performer, could unnerve Boutté: He just extended an arm and invited it into his sound. Rumbling beneath it all more consistently was the odd mixture of pain and frustration, pride and purpose that underscores post-Katrina life for all New Orleans residents.
"You need to know that Katrina didn't hit New Orleans," Boutté said at one point. "But the levees failed, and we got flooded. The shingles on the house my father built are fine. But the place filled with water.
"People say I'm angry," he said a bit later. "I'm not -- I'm pissed." But his performance was no maudlin plea, nor was it a political rally. As he always does, Boutté communicated what was needed musically, via savvy song selection, canny interpretation, and searing intensity.
Lamentation: "Stevie Wonder's "Love's in Need of Love Today"
Incredulity: Wonder's "You Haven't Done Nothin'"
Narrative: Randy Newman's "Louisiana, 1927" (with improvised lyrics like: "twelve feet of water in yo' mama's house and mine")
Biographical Detail: "Sisters," an original tune based on the names of his six siblings
Stern Reminders: the lines "Don't you know me? I'm your native son," during Arlo Guthrie's "City of New Orleans"
And raw emotion: "You don't know how I feel," over and over, in Annie Lennox's "Why"
Early on, I found myself wishing that Boutté had brought along a bigger band: If only the brilliant trumpeter Leroy Jones were on hand, spinning out soft counterpoint and wisely witty solos, as he does when Boutté performs each week at DBA, on Frenchmen Street. But in duet with his longtime guitarist Todd Duke, Boutté's presentation sounded full and complete. The singer's fingersnaps, handclaps, and tamborine playing (customary shake-and-slap sometimes, others a more Congo Square-style hand-drum method) formed a rhythm section with Duke's often percussive strumming and well-timed phrasing (at one point, Duke covered his strings and re-imagined his guitar as a snare drum). Duke was more than just a sensitive accompanist: He was a seamless source of tempo shifts, purposefully restless with harmonic insight and stylistic variation. And his soloing once though on "Love's in Need of Love Today" offered marvelous suggestion of a song within the song.
Boutté's attraction mirrors the lure of his hometown. Like New Orleans, his voice is expansive enough to command attention, yet restrained , like a small town. Like New Orleans, it's familiar in ways that touch a deep nerve (was that Sam Cooke I heard in there?), but also utterly distinctive (as Stevie Wonder once told him, he's got "a signature'). It's soft and warm, in a distinctly feminine way, then bold and hard-hitting enough to take you out. It's exotic, glinting with African and European influences, nevertheless defiantly -- definitively -- American.
Like most good singers, Boutté is a storyteller. And in New Orleans, tales tend to go on a bit. When one of the pub's Draconian staff beckoned from the wings for Boutté to wrap it up, the singer shook the order off.
"I gotta leave 'em with a gospel," he said, sliding into "It Don't Cost Much."
Perhaps he was reminding us that, compared to, say, the expense of a typical month in Iraq, repairing the levees and rebuilding a city of culture is eminently affordable, utterly doable. Or maybe he was just offering a last bit of spiritual bliss. Probably both.
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