Sound Advice Reviews
Two live nightclub recordings from male singers this week: musical theatre's Norbert Leo Butz was captured at New York's hot venue 54 Below in a show he called Memory & Mayhem. On the other coast, singer Tom Culver's endeavor is titled Thanks for the Memory. Three cheers for the caught-in-the-act recordings that have caught the flavor of "being there." Otherwise, cabaret acts, like live theatre, become only a ...memory.
NORBERT LEO BUTZ
In his live recording, digging into some bluesy pop, Norbert Leo Butz gets down and funkyconvincingly so. He points out that the theme of his act turned out to be "memory," as most of the songs take place in someone's recollected experiences or reference that. While not one of those "musical theatre star sings musical theatre songs" outings, there are a few nods to his own theatre roots, too. So, let's discuss those first. A number from a show on his Broadway resumé gets mixed into a true mash-up when the oldie "Sixteen Tons" meets up with The Full Monty's "Great Big Stuff." First memory of Butz for some theatre fans might be his role in the two-person musical The Last Five Years (currently back Off-Broadway with a new duo). His co-star in one production of the show, the potent Lauren Kennedy, shines in their moody, mellower-than-most-tracks duet of "Poison and Wine." And the writer of that musical, Jason Robert Brown, is represented by the rollicking recollections and rhapsodizing of "I Could Be in Love with Someone Like You," emphasizing its humor. Several casual uses of a certain ubiquitous four-letter word (one in the Brown piece, the rest in patter, notably in some mid-song talk not tracked separately) will be FCC-problematic for airplay.
While some of the bluesy choices may make for some open-wound downers, they have a ring of authenticity. Overall, a gritty, grizzled cry is injected to many numbers, molding the material to the singer's sensibilities and styles, rather than having a chameleon on parade with ever-changing vocal sounds. Mixing gruff-tough and vulnerable personas in eclectic song choices and in patter, showing a voice that easily seesaws between sandpaper and silk, he jumps into his material with confidence. Oddly, despite the varied genres, there's not as much vocal versatility on display as one might assume.
Shyness is not on the table on these confident, strutting prances through soulful stances with plenty of wailing electric guitar and driving drums and some country feel. The non-showy but very strong piano work of musical director Michael Moritz, Jr. and his arrangements anchor the project. There's a sense of the guy having a ball in front of the audience, letting loose and feeling free. The energy is contagious and he and the band are good song salesmenwhich might pull in at least some of those who don't normally gravitate towards these musical styles. Kenny Brescia, whom Butz notes was in the orchestra, too, during the time he spent in Rent, is on board, and the singer takes up the guitar himself as well. Fortunately, the road to rock and pop doesn't mean mindless fluff or just putting on a rock star stomper's hat and playing in musical mud puddles. A searing, soaring number like Jimmy Webb's "If These Walls Could Speak" is a thoughtful, sensitive exploration, far from bubble gum or glib pop filler. Likewise, another heavy hitter, Tom Waits, gets his work on the set list with the wistful "Broken Bicycles." And it's sung with full and heavy heart, a real highlight.
The state of Georgia is not the reference point for including the classic "Georgia on My Mind"; rather, it's the state of fatherhood, as his third daughter's name is Georgia. This inspires him to insert the word "little" before Georgia several times and to adapt line "other eyes smile tenderly" "other cute little baby girls smile tenderly," which is distracting, but I guess it's a proud papa's liberty to take. It's still "an old sweet song." And it's the sweetness and sweet sorrow that shine brightest here.
An amiable vocalist whose heart is in the right place and who places his gigs in his home base of California, Tom Culver epitomizes the nice guy and lover of good songs and old movies who's eager to share some memories. It's a walk on the mild side. Imagine a pile of yellowing sheet music with movie stars pictured on the covers. Songs heard in movies, often heard there first, make up the set list for Culver's Thanks for the Memory act captured at a cabaret room on the west coast. The context of the plot and characters of a film can sweeten and intensify the memory of numbers featured. He eagerly voices his choices and calls back the contexts by reminding the crowd of the cinematic origins and which star sang what. And there's plenty of that patter preserved on the CD. Most are nostalgic well-known items from the Golden Age of film musicals, such as Irving Berlin numbers for Fred Astaire, like "Let's Face the Music and Dance" and three others which are contained in a breezy medley. It's like a guided tour down Hollywood Boulevard of yore.
When he tries to stretch his drama or vocal chops on the weightier "Blues in the Night," he's not in his comfort zone. He eschews the bitter in the bittersweet of a lyric. Thus, it's safest to bank on the ebullience of the opener, Rodgers & Hammerstein's "It's a Grand Night for Singing" and warm and fuzzy qualities of the Berlin/Astaire repertoire.
A pleasant but limited vocalist who can phrase nicely and sincerely on a cozy cuddle-upper like "I Had the Craziest Dream," the live experience happily brings out his communicative skills and sense of drama, whereas some early studio albums are "safer," if smoother. "What's Good About Goodbye" finds him particularly engaged in the dreamy melancholy. Happily, the sadness works. In other places, the arrangements work against the potential of deeper feelings, such as the clarinet playing a blithe, peppy air, or the tempo being crisp and even.
The singer is accompanied by a seven-member band. Warmth is the key word to describe the band's playing as well as the singing. Hardly a risky affair, it's an often endearing stroll down memory lane. Additional lyrics by Culver, name-dropping some movie star names and their accomplishments as a coda to "Thanks for the Memory," jog the memory even more. The rhyming isn't exemplaryrhyming "shoes" and his oft-employed "too." As the original lyric states, "We did have fun. And no harm done." Such might be a sum-up of this listening experience.