At his 2011 performance at the New Orleans Jazz Fest, John Boutte brought a hush to the crowd with a soft, slow, shiver-inducing rendition of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." This year, he did it again, but took the song in a wholly different direction.
Performing Saturday afternoon to an adoring crowd in the WWOZ Jazz Tent, Boutte turned Cohen's heartbreaking lament into a jazzy ballad, adding soul and spirit to the soaring high notes.
Backed by the lilting voices of the OperaCreole chorus and a stage full of standout musicians, including Wendell Brunious on trumpet, Boutte took hold of the familiar song and, with masterful helmanship, steered it into uncharted territory.
The somber chorus rose to lifting trumpets and drums.
Out in the seats, the crowd shifted and turned, pulled by the music and stilled by the lyrics. As Boutte's final notes lifted into the air, the audience erupted, holding a standing ovation for several minutes.
Boutte, wiping the sweat from his brow, gave an impish grin and tipped his straw hat. It was a performance that illustrates why Boutte is one of New Orleans' most beloved troubadours.
"Hallelujah" is one of the tracks on Boutte's new "All About Everything" CD. It was also the highlight of his power-packed, hour-long Jazz Fest set.
Dressed in island garb (white slacks, batik-print shirt), Boutte seemed in a tropical mood, infusing a little soft shoe into a set filled with his own songs, those by Fats Domino, Allen Toussaint and other greats, and a poignant spiritual translated from Portuguese.
Halfway through the show, he called up the OperaCreole singers, a group of four women and one man, all dressed in white (the ladies with hibiscus flowers in their hair), each with powerful operatic voices.
As Boutte took a seat, they taught the audience a few phrases of Creole French for a sing-along to a folk song called "Chere Mo Lemme Toi."
Dedicated to Boutte, the words, as translated, went a little like this:
"Dear I love you so,"
"With all my heart, I love you dear,
"Like a little pig loves mud."
Of course, it sounded a little more lyrical in French.
Laughing as he took back the mic, Boutte kept the mood light, segued into Titus Turner's "Grits Ain't Groceries," a hilarious bluesy little ditty:
"If I don't love you baby," he sang.
"Grits ain't groceries,
"Eggs ain't poultry,
"And Mona Lisa was a man."
And that's the way things went, arcing from soft and moving, to rollicking and foot-stomping, as the set wound to its big crescendo.
Slipping into an Elvis-in-Vegas-style coat, bedazzled with sequins, the words "Treme" written in sparkles across his back, Boutte grabbed his tambourine, gave a pump of his fist and launched into a song that he wrote in 2003, long before a certain HBO show made it famous.
"Down in the Treme
"Just me and my baby
"We're jamming and having fun."
Not one person left that tent without humming that tune.