Singing His Heart Out for the City of New Orleans

Published: June 8, 2007

“I’m not going to dwell on it; I’m tired of talking about it,” the singer John Boutté said at Joe’s Pub on Wednesday night. He was referring to the state of affairs in New Orleans, where he was born and reared and where he still resides. And while the second part of his statement seemed true enough, the first part quickly proved otherwise.

In fact, it would be an understatement to say that Mr. Boutté (pronounced boo-TAY) dwelled on New Orleans in a rare and suitably crowded New York performance. He reveled in it, grappled with it, made it seem like a state of being. In his banter as well as his singing, he steadily exuded New Orleans feeling: the bonhomie and pride along with the heartache and frustration.

He was backed only by an electric guitarist, Todd Duke, and the stripped-down format put some strain on them both. But strain is a welcome condition for Mr. Boutté, whose clear yet raspy tenor can suggest classic soul singers like Sam Cooke and Earl King. The set included a couple of songs associated with Mr. King, and a couple by Steve Wonder — “Love’s in Need of Love Today” and “You Haven’t Done Nothin’ ” — that Mr. Boutté took pains to connect to a faltering recovery effort since the levee failure of nearly two years ago.

Rhythm is a strong suit for Mr. Boutté, who kept spirited time on a tambourine through much of the show. On ballads and love songs he veered toward overstatement, imbuing Annie Lennox’s “Why” with a grating insistence that wasn’t helped by the stark setting. (He fared better with the song on a recent album by the New Orleans Social Club.) Singing “Skylark,” the Hoagy Carmichael-Johnny Mercer standard, he was more subdued but less self-assured.

By contrast, there was both authority and magnetism in his version of Steve Goodman’s “City of New Orleans.” Mr. Boutté recorded it several years ago with a bluegrass band called Uptown Okra, and his arrangement with Mr. Duke preserves a similar rollicking feel. Of course the lyrics also suit Mr. Boutté handsomely. “Good morning America, how is ya?” he sang, grinning at his vernacular twist. “Don’t you know me? I’m your native son.” At the next line, “I’m the train they call the City of New Orleans,” he gestured toward the floor, which was rumbling with the passing of a well-timed subway train.

He pushed even harder toward resonance in “Louisiana 1927,” the Randy Newman song that became an anthem in the weeks after Hurricane Katrina. Its lyrics, which depict an earlier flood, don’t really require elaboration to evoke recent events. But when Mr. Boutté sang about “six feet of water in the Lower Nine,” and then alluded to someone named “King George,” a cathartic cheer arose. If he was dwelling on it, he wasn’t the only one.