Beyond Playlist: Henry Butler and More

Henry Butler PiaNOLA Live (Basin Street)

As noted in a 2006 Westword profile, Henry Butler once owned a house in New Orleans’ Gentilly neighborhood – but Hurricane Katrina destroyed the structure and pretty much everything else in it. Somehow, though, a number of live recordings he made over the years managed to come through the storm intact. PiaNOLA Live, whose release Butler will celebrate on Saturday, May 10, at Dazzle, contains selections from several of them, recorded at various events between the mid-‘80s and 2007. They combine to form a fine portrait of an artist whose indomitable spirit echoes through his every note.

The co-producer here is George Winston, whose work often falls into the (eeesh) new age category. Nevertheless, there’s nothing tepid about Butler’s performances, which are marked by strength and vigor. Just two originals are included: “Orleans Inspiration,” an energetic instrumental, and “Let 'Em Roll,” which Butler co-wrote with guitarist Corey Harris, another performer with Denver connections. Still, his interpretations of ditties such as the rollicking Chris Penner tune “Something You Got,” Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” and, naturally, “Ol’ Man River” turn out to be just as personal as the material that flowed from his own pen, and equally inspirational.

Butler lost a great deal when Katrina hit – but thank goodness he was able to salvage PiaNOLA Live. -- Michael Roberts

Tim Fite Fair Ain’t Fair (Anti-)

Once upon a time, artists were able to use samples from just about any song or album they wished – but when the courts ruled, properly, that the writers of the original material deserved compensation, the art of sonic collage quickly changed. Fite kept this studio technique alive for a while by lifting snippets from ultra-obscure tracks – the kind that were, for all intents and purposes, in the public domain. But on Fair Ain’t Fair, he’s relying more on live instrumentation than before and utilizing samples mainly as filigree. That doesn’t mean the disc is dull. Rather, it feels closer in spirit and execution to an earlier age of studio tomfoolery, when musicians used found sounds and homemade gadgetry to spruce up otherwise straight-forward compositions.

The likes of “Trouble” and “Rats and Rags” eschew the hip-hop stylings Fite's drawn upon in the past in favor of a bizarre take on roots music – blues, country and so on. Lyrically, meanwhile, he shows himself to be an irony fan, warbling lines like “A lie don’t mean nothin’ if nobody knows when you lie,” from “Big Mistake,” in a voice that's alternately chipper and declamatory or mumbled and creaky.

Few of these tunes qualify as overtly user-friendly, but the density of the production, as well as the wordplay, means each listen is apt to be rewarded with a new discovery. Consider it a Fair deal. -- Roberts

Elephant Man Let’s Get Physical (Bad Boy/VP Records)

Sean Combs uses a timeworn formula in an attempt to make Elephant Man’s gruff dancehall barks palatable for the American masses, piling on every guest star this side of Olivia Newton John over the course of Let’s Get Physical.

Chris Brown brings his teen appeal to “Feel the Steam,” Mario Winans smooths out “Back That Thing on Me (Shake That),” and Swizz Beatz hypes up approximately the five-trillionth song called “Jump.” (Predictably, the latest iteration doesn’t sound much different from all but three or four of its predecessors.) The closest thing to an effective collab is “Five-O,” which features Diddy himself. Not that he offers much help: The song would be more effective if the CEO had stayed in his office and left things to another cameo provider, Wyclef. In the end, though, the top moment here is song one, “Drop Dead,” a furious pumper that’s dominated by, believe it or don’t, the guy whose face is on the cover, and that doesn’t feature any famous people at all.

Think about trying that approach next time, Mr. Combs. It’d be a lot cheaper. -- Roberts

Dame Shirley Bassey Get the Party Started (Decca)

Bassey may be a Dame, but she’s clearly not a snooty one . How else to explain Get the Party Started, a nutty novelty in which the now-71-year-old merrily goes along with image tweaks of the sort most veteran performers would try to avoid.

Because Bassey’s best known for the theme songs she recorded for three James Bond flicks, Goldfinger, Diamonds Are Forever and Moonraker, producers Catherine Feeney and Nikki Lamborn of Never the Bride have gone out of their way to make every track sound 007-ready. That’s as true for the title tune – yes, it’s the Pink single, done up with disco beats and a brass arrangement that sound as if soundtracker John Barry dreamed them up – as it is for “You Only Live Twice,” a Bond theme Bassey didn’t originally sing (Nancy Sinatra handled it first time around).

Will I ever listen to this CD again? Probably not, since jokes are seldom as funny the second time around. But I’m glad I did once, and at this point, that’s probably the best Bassey can hope for. What a Dame. -- Roberts

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts