Not so long ago, Henry Butler owned a great house in New Orleans’ Gentilly neighborhood – a place with its own studio and plenty of room for his much-cherished, 1925-vintage Mason & Hamlin piano. Hurricane Katrina changed all that in August 2005, washing away or destroying the vast majority of Butler’s belongings. However, the brutal storm exhibited unexpected mercy when it came to his archive of live recordings. The surviving tapes form the backbone of PiaNOLA Live, a compelling showcase for his talents and indomitable spirit.
The performances preserved here took place between the mid-’80s and 2007, but the disc’s liner notes offer no specifics about time and locale. In the end, such distinctions don’t matter, since Butler’s vitality and charisma remain consistent throughout. Butler, (who now lives in Denver) and co-producer George Winston give comparatively short shrift to original compositions, highlighting only two: “Orleans Inspiration,” a lively instrumental that gives Butler’s left hand a real workout, and “Let ‘Em Roll,” a blues the pianist co-wrote with guitarist Corey Harris that packs an hour’s worth of joy into less than four minutes. Still, Butler’s interpretations prove to be every bit as creative as the songs he penned. “Something You Got,” a rollicking Chris Penner tune, sports a solo of unexpected intricacy, while “You Are My Sunshine” receives a floridly virtuosic treatment that gives it fresh life. He works the same magic with an expressionistic rendition of the Otis Redding chestnut “(Sitting’ On) The Dock of the Bay” and a deeply felt survey of “Ol’ Man River,” which no doubt means more to him now than ever before.
The waters may have receded, but thank goodness Butler keeps rolling along.
- Michael Roberts