Some of you may still think of Norbert Leo Butz as a musical theater guy, but he is, self avowed, “more Stevie Nicks than Stephen Sondheim.” Last time I saw him at 54/Below, he and a terrific band blew the roof off the club with rock n’ roll, rockabilly and country. Tonight he appears solo – musician, actor/ storyteller.
Butz was in Canada on a shoot when the pandemic hit. Scheduled to stay four months, the performer found himself stuck away from family for nine. His host country was strict. Isolated, he bought a small Yamaha piano and went back to where music started for him.
The artist tells us he was the seventh of 11 children and slept in a drawer his first two years. “My mom had ten babies before she was 31…Most of the time I was just trying to keep my head above water.” Sitting at the keyboard noodling , he slides into the Daryl Hall/John Oats/Sara Allen song of that title. Lyric and piano are declarative, jarring. We hear about his music teachers, replete with character voices. There was all kinds of music in the house.
The musician moves from piano to guitar. An older sister brought home Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors album. Coincidentally in the same key as the etude he practiced, Butz discovered he could ease from one genre to the other. “Go Your Own Way” (Lindsay Buckingham) is a double entendre. Phrasing ends at the end of each written line like traditional blues. “Love on the Rocks” (Neil Diamond/Gilbert Becaud) follows. The performer punctuates air, growls, and mourns. Having just been dropped by a 13 year-old girlfriend, he felt the song deeply.
“Brilliant Disguise” (Bruce Springsteen) “Is that you, babeeee?” is a two-fisted lament. “Learn to Fly” (The Foo Fighters – he’s wearing a FOO t-shirt) arrives as if keening. “Now, I’m lookin’ to the sky to save me/Lookin’ for a sign of life/ Lookin’ for somethin’ to help me burn out bright…” Tonight’s songs exhibit the darkness he inhabited during those months. They’re self-contained. Butz closes his eyes, rocks on the piano seat, tilts his heads back. We’re witnesses.
“Gold in Them Hills” (Ron Sexsmith) is a rare sign of hope: “…so don’t lose heart/Give the day a chance to start…” Phrases are milked, mined. He sings with feeling. Two selections presented uniquely are Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You” which becomes a melodic, longlined ballad and Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5” dedicated to workers trying to earn a living wage. “We looked at songs differently during the pandemic.” The latter, performed in attractive harmony with Catherine Porter, is a softened, exhausted rendition expressed by a wage earner dragging him/herself into another day.
Gary Nicholson’s “Shadow of a Doubt” is classic blues, sloooow, with a slap of the guitar and hard thrum. Butz wails.
On his own, a blunt musician, Butz excels at stories. Though isolated songs stand out, I miss the band. When he accompanies himself, the artist too often sounds the same. Selections in German and Italian demonstrate the path his teacher tried to steer. They do little for the show.
I remain a fan.
Norbert Leo Butz Sings Torch Songs for a Pandemic
Norbert Leo Butz- piano, guitars; vocals
Guest Vocalist – Catherine Porter
254 West 54th Street