Norbert Leo Butz: Sings Torch Songs for a Pandemic

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Norbert Leo Butz

Sings Torch Songs for a Pandemic

54 Below, NYC, October 2, 2023

Reviewed by Alix Cohen

Norbert Leo Butz

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.” The 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 music. Tonight, he appeared solo—as a musician and actor/storyteller.

Butz was in Canada on a shoot when the pandemic hit. Scheduled to stay for four months, the performer found himself stuck there away from his 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 for his first two years. “My mom had 10 babies before she was 31. Most of the time I was just trying to keep my head above water.” Sitting at the keyboard as he noodled, he slid into the Daryl Hall/John Oats/Sara Allen song “Head Above Water.” The lyric and piano were both declarative and jarring. We hear about his music teachers, replete with character voices. There were all kinds of music in the house.

Butz moved from the piano to the guitar. He related that an older sister brought home Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors album. Coincidentally, some of its songs were in the same key as the etude he practiced, and he discovered he could ease from one genre to the other. “Go Your Own Way” (Lindsay Buckingham) has a double entendre lyric, and the phrasing ends at the end of each written line is like traditional blues. “Love on the Rocks” (Neil Diamond/Gilbert Bécaud) followed. The performer punctuated the air, growled, and mourned. Having just been dropped by a 13-year-old girlfriend, he felt the song deeply.

“Brilliant Disguise” (Bruce Springsteen) with its “Is that you, babeeee?” was a two-fisted lament. “Learn to Fly” (The Foo Fighters; he’s wearing a FOO tee-shirt) was delivered as if he were 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.” The songs he chose exhibited the darkness he inhabited during those months of isolation; they were self-contained. Butz closed his eyes, rocked on the piano seat, and tilted his head back. We were witnesses.

“Gold in Them Hills” (Ron Sexsmith) offered a rare sign of hope: “so don’t lose heart/Give the day a chance to start.” The phrases were milked and mined. He sang with feeling. Two of the selections he presented in his unique way were Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You” (which became 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,” he told us. The Parton song, performed in harmony with guest vocalist Catherine Porter, received a softened, exhausted rendition expressed by a wage earner who dragged himself/herself into another day.

Did he sing “You’re Not Alone” (Jeffrey Scott Tweedy) to himself? “A broken home, a broken heart/Isolated and afraid/Open up this is a raid/I wanna get it through to you/You’re not alone.” Gary Nicholson’s “Shadow of a Doubt” was classic blues—sloooow with a slap of the guitar and hard thrum. Butz wailed.

On his own, he’s a blunt musician who excels at telling stories. Although isolated songs stood out, I missed the presence of a band. When he accompanied himself, the singer and the songs too often sounded the same. Selections in German and Italian demonstrated the path onto which his teacher tried to steer him, but they did little for the show. Still, I remain a fan.

Alix Cohen

Alix Cohen’s writing began with poetry, segued into lyrics then took a commercial detour. She now authors pieces about culture/the arts, including reviews and features. A diehard proponent of cabaret, she’s also a theater aficionado, a voting member of Drama Desk, The Drama League and of The NY Press Club in addition to MAC. Currently, Alix writes for Cabaret Scenes, Theater Pizzazz and Woman Around Town. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine and Times Square Chronicles. Alix is the recipient of six New York Press Club Awards.