If your idea of cabaret is a lounge singer crooning his way through a collection of standards from the Great American Songbook, spiced with maybe some special material and a little clever banter, Norbert Leo Butz’s Memory and Mayhem doesn’t come close. His gig, recorded as part of Broadway Records “Live at 54 Below” series, isn’t your father’s cabaret. Butz, best known for his work in musical comedy, takes to the 54 Below stage to show what else he’s got, and he’s got plenty. Blues, jazz, bit of rock, and a bit of country, he can do it all. Sure, there are a couple of nods to the musical theater, but they are little more than reminders of the singer’s claim to fame. The bulk of the evening is devoted to his other sides, the many sides of Norbert Leo Butz.
From his very first song, Marc Broussard’s “Home,” he lets the audience know they’re in for something different. And he drives the point home when he follows with Van Morrison’s “The Way Young Lovers Do.” Then, in case you were thinking you know where he’s going, he shifts into a new gear with a stripped down version of jazz singer Kurt Elling’s setting of Theodore Roethke’s “The Waking,” where his vocal is accompanied by a solo bass. Add killer performances of songs like “Killing the Blues,” which I last heard from Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, and Randy Weeks’ “Can’t Let Go,” which makes me think Lucinda Williams, and you have to wonder if there is anything this guy can’t sing, and sing with style.
The nods to his musical comedy background include a comic number, “I Could Be in Love With Someone Like You.” This was a song written originally for Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years but later replaced. There is also a medley that puts together the old Tennessee Ernie Ford classic “Sixteen Tons” and a few bits from “Great Big Stuff” from Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, a show for which Butz won one of his two Tony Awards.
Lauren Kennedy joins him for an elegant duet cover of The Civil Wars’ ballad “Poison and Wine,” with its haunting contradiction, “I don’t love you, but I always will.” He gives a shout out to his newest daughter with the classic “Georgia on My Mind,” Hoagy Carmichael by way of Ray Charles as he points out. There is some nice traditional blues backing on the piano from Michael Moritz. Alicia Keys’ “No One,” Tom Waits’ “Broken Bicycles” and David Gray’s “Be Mine” round out the album, before Butz returns for a well deserved encore, a song he calls an old blues he likes to sing, “Shadow of Doubt.”
Butz’s Memory and Mayhem joins the initial release in the Live at 54 Below series, Patti LuPone’s Far Away Places, and if future albums are as good as these two, there’s a lot for cabaret fans to look forward to.