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Lake Pontchartrain was calm one recent afternoon as I sat near the water's edge, eating oyster po' boys with New Orleans singer John Boutté. But the destructive potential of the water surrounding him is never far from his mind, nor are the empty promises made by federal, state, and city officials in the long wake of 2005's floods.
"The floods were one thing," he said. "But everything since has been even worse. It's been one indignity after anothera horrible nightmare you just can't wake up from."
A week earlier, bouncing around a stage at the annual Jazz & Heritage Festival, a horn section punctuating his phrases, Boutté sang that sentiment during Stevie Wonder's "You Haven't Done Nothin' ": "We would not care to wake up to the nightmare that's becoming real life." An apt vehicle for Boutté's reedy tenor, the song became much more: an elegant escape valve for pent-up frustration. Biting into the title line"You ha-ven't done nothin' "he lent uncommon power to a familiar complaint.
When Boutté performs at Joe's Pub on June 6, New Yorkers will get rare exposure to the soft voice and fiery spirit that have made his hometown gigs mandatory, cathartic listening. Talk to New Orleans musicians and they'll sing one chorus: He's just about the best vocalist in town. Listen to him perform, and you'll hear the stories of post-Katrina life wrung from a well-chosen repertoire and coy phrasing. At d.b.a, along a boisterous strip of Frenchmen Street, Boutté regularly silences Saturday night conversations, transforming Annie Lennox's "Why" from lover's inquisition to social-resistance cry. At the French Quarter's Café Amelie, he fills the lush courtyard gently, singing obvious standards and lesser-known gems such as Wonder's "If It's Magic." Randy Newman's "Louisiana, 1927," commemorating an earlier flood, has become a focal point of Boutté's gigs, studded with the singer's own topical lyrics. (Newman's account of President Coolidge arriving on a railroad train becomes "King Bush flew over in an aeroplane," along with snide asides to BlackBerrys, Condi Rice, and the infamous "heckuva job" comment.)
The eighth of 10 children, Boutté, now 48, grew up in a small house in the city's Seventh Ward. He sang in church and played first-chair trumpet in public school. After attending Xavier University and serving a few years in the Army, Boutté found himself filing reports for the city morgue. He later worked as a bank account supervisor. But a chance encounter with Stevie Wonder led to an impromptu jam session. "And before Stevie left," Boutté recalls, "he told me that I had my own signature as a singer." Soon after, Boutté's older sister Lillian, who starred in the musical One Mo' Time, invited him to sing on her European tour. He quit the bank gig and never looked back.
In performance, Boutté, who is short, wiry, and bronze-skinned, moves like a flyweight boxerhe hangs back, then thrusts forward, shifting his weight from left to right. His voice works that way, too. It flows in a series of silky moves, all based on rhythmic patterns, now and then bursting into a single piercing note or a devastating flurry of melismata.
Some worthy recorded documents of Boutté exist: a chilling, nearly rubato version of "We Shall Overcome" on 1997's private-issue Scotch and Soda; the jaunty, gospel-inspired title track of 1999's At the Foot of Canal Street; a clever Cubano version of Allen Toussaint's "Mother-in-Law," with members of Cubanismo, on 2000's Mardi Gras Mambo; his stirring "Why" on last year's star-studded Sing Me Back Home. But the great John Boutté album is yet to be made. Maybe that's fitting. Like so much in New Orleans, Boutté's magic is elusive. You have to be there.
John Boutté plays Joe's Pub June 6, joespub.com.