Cultural traditions serve singer's soul

July 23, 2006

BY MARY HOULIHAN Staff Reporter

Walk down the tree-lined streets of New Orleans' Faubourg Marigny neighborhood on a hot sultry night, and chances are you'll hear John Boutte's voice floating out of one of the area's trendy nightspots. Perhaps he'll be singing soulful versions of Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come" or Annie Lennox's "Why," or maybe it'll be one of the bayou-blended tunes he's co-authored with Paul Sanchez, his pal from the alt-rock band Cowboy Mouth.

Whatever the song, its soulfulness will stop you in your tracks, for Boutte lives and breathes the heart and soul of New Orleans.

Born into a large Creole family that goes back seven generations in Louisiana, he was exposed to music early in life, soaking up New Orleans jazz, soul, blues and gospel, then adding his own Creole traditions along the way. Today, Boutte works with a wonderful amalgam of styles -- from torchy jazz to aching soul and African-American gospel -- all convincingly delivered.

"John is the embodiment of all that's good about New Orleans," Sanchez said. "His voice is the poetry of the language of New Orleans. It's uncanny but he makes whatever style he's singing completely believable."

Boutte has performed all over the world -- but never in Chicago. Thanks to Sanchez, he is making his local debut Monday night at Schubas as part of an acoustic show fronted by Sanchez and also including John Thomas Griffith and Sonia Tetlow, also of Cowboy Mouth.

One of the hightlights of the show is sure to be Boutte's rendition of Randy Newman's "Louisiana 1927," a song that's gotten a lot of mileage since Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans last August -- and possibly the best American song ever written about a flood. At this year's New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, Boutte brought the crowd to its feet when he sang his wrenching version, which he reworked with Sanchez to describe Katrina's devastation, substituting "Lower 9" (indicating the city's flood-wrecked Lower 9th Ward) for the word "Evangeline" and closing with the plea: "Don't let them wash us away."

As evidenced by the song's biting lyrics, Boutte never has been shy about voicing his beliefs about New Orleans and its problems, which he says "began a long time ago." When the flood waters hit, he was performing in Brazil and didn't return home until October. Everyone in his family survived, but houses were lost, including those built by his father, grandfather and great-grandfather.

"Katrina never actually hit us," Boutte said, emphatically. "The failure of the levees is what hit us, and they were designed to fail. 'Louisiana 1927' is about just that sort of situation."

Music in the city's DNA

Boutte lives in the French Quarter, not far from the home he grew up in. The plant-filled balcony of his apartment overlooks Rampart Street near Congo Square, ground zero for the birth of New Orleans' music. Down the street is a non-descript laundromat -- once the home of J&M Studio, where the New Orleans sound of the 1950s was born; Little Richard, Fats Domino, Lloyd Price, Guitar Slim and Clarence "Frogman" Henry are just a few of the artists who recorded there.

"In the '50s, those guys were recording some of the biggest records in America down there," Boutte said, with a resigned sigh. "Now it's the place where I wash and fold my clothes."

One of 10 children born to a mother who believed in education ("We might have been poor, but we were always smart"), Boutte says anyone growing up in New Orleans gets a music education -- whether they like it or not. For example, he remembers a neighbor, Miss Belle, who every day belted out Mahalia Jackson songs while cooking greens and hanging her wash.

"Music was an integral part of everyone's life," Boutte said. "It was part of the socialization, from church to the barrooms to the cemetery. It was simply second nature to be in a brass band or participate in a second-line funeral parade. Avoiding it was not an option."

Boutte's stubborn mother, Gloria, had no intention of raising her children to a career in music. However, she did believe that children who understand music also do well in other subjects. So when Boutte was 8, she gave him a coronet, which led to a stand-out role in his high school marching band.

Yet despite his love of music, Boutte entered Xavier University intent on pursuing a business degree. Upon graduation, he was commissioned as an officer in the U.S. Army, where he worked as a statistician while also directing and singing in Army gospel choirs. Returning to civilian life, Boutte's sister Lillian invited him to tour Europe with her, which led to a final decision: Music it would be.

"It was the best career move I could have made," Boutte said.

Musical brothers

Boutte found a kindred spirit when he met Cowboy Mouth's Sanchez; they were introduced by singer-songwriter Michelle Shocked at one of her infamous backyard parties.

Born in New Orleans on the same day in the same year, Boutte and Sanchez both have a deep love of the city, its people and traditions. The complex seduction of this Southern city deeply informs their songwriting. Sanchez's song "Voodoo Shoppe," the title cut on Cowboy Mouths new disc, was inspired by Boutte's neighbor, a voodoo priestess.

"There were interesting things going on in that courtyard," Sanchez said, laughing. "It was definitely a New Orleans moment. I learned a lot hanging out there."

As New Orleans rebuilds and tries to find its new identity, people like Boutte are an integral part of that reconstruction. With his personal history and "stranger-than-fiction" life, he's a direct connection to the French Creole and black traditions that go back to the city's early days.

"It's a language and culture that celebrates life in its own special way," Sanchez said. "John brings that to the stage with the stories he tells and the songs he sings."

Boutte admits he was nervous about this year's Jazz Fest performance. He knew it would be emotional, and he wanted to help people bury the past and look to the future. But Boutte also wanted to make a statement.

"Sometimes you have to have a funeral before you can move on," Boutte said, pausing. "I think my performance was a sort of therapy both for me and the audience. People were aching for New Orleans, and I wanted to assure them that until we wipe the entire human race off the face of the Earth, New Orleans is still going to be there."

 

CONCERT PREVIEW

PAUL SANCHEZ WITH JOHN BOUTTE, JOHN THOMAS GRIFFITH AND SONIA TETLOW

When: 8 p.m. Monday
Where: Schubas, 3159 N. Southport
Tickets: $15
Call: (773) 525-2508

mhoulihan@suntimes.com

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