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Butch Walker: His Way

Butch Walker: His Way

By Anthony Kuzminski

There's the right way, then there's my way
There's a highway, if you don't like it you can take it
So just talk away, I don't hear a word you say
I'll be my way, if you don't like it you can take it
-“My Way”

“Do you know of Butch Walker?” This one question has begun at least a dozen conversations of mine over the last 18 months. Once I acknowledge that not only do I know who he is, but that I also express my love for this vastly underrated artist, the person I am speaking to gets this cosmic, spacey and spiritual look in their glazed over eyes. Now before I go too deep too quickly, I need to bring those who do not know who Butch Walker is up to speed. Two years ago, I was one of those people. I knew the name but nothing of who Butch Walker was, but then came the early morning hours of October 5th, 2003. I was in New York City; mere hours after Bruce Springsteen and the E Street band gave their final rousing performance of “The Rising” tour at Shea Stadium. I was surrounded by some of the best and finest musical compatriots anyone could ask for. It was among those friends that I was introduced to the starlet who would be my instructor of Butch Walker 101; Billie Jo. What I discovered over the next few hours was someone whose love of music goes beyond the artist’s fame or fortune but someone who is a fan in the truest sense of the word. While we discussed Springsteen and other hair metal bands we grew up on, I heard the very question I would hear time and time again over the next 18 months; “Do you know of Butch Walker?” It’s sad to say, but I did not. Over the next thirty-minutes Billie Jo proceeded to drill me on a brief history of Butch. This would be a lesson that continued for the next ten months; at the time, however, I was the equivalent of a disinterested high school student in freshman Biology who was hearing her, but not focusing on what she was saying.

Fast forward to August 2004 at The Abbey Pub in Chicago; I would lay witness to Butch Walker with special guest American Hi-Fi. I took my better half, Jen, and as we walked into the Abbey Pub, a blast from the past appeared before my eyes, an old high school music buddy, Paul. The larger than life character now runs a music club and our paths seem to cross only at concerts. The metal and hip-hop loving Paul smiled and immediately approached me. “What are you doing here?” I asked, and he simply said “I love Butch, always have, and always will. In fact, he’s the only artist I still pay to see…he deserves the support”. Now, before I go any further I need to give you some perspective on Paul. He’s incredibly tall and muscular, so his presence is felt in any room he wanders into. When Paul was in high school, before he could even drive, he would buy beer for college students. His musical tastes were heavy -Metallica, Megadeth, Motley Crue, Sabbath, Anthrax, etc…and to hear him profess his love for an underrated pop-rocker struck me as odd and yet incredibly unique at the same time. For me, it gave Butch Walker immediate hardcore rock credibility. Little did I realize I would soon identify with the same level of devotion Billie Jo and Paul had expressed to me.

Jen and I grabbed seats in the balcony as American Hi-Fi tore through a killer set. However, their strength as a live unit would come full circle when Butch Walker strode out onto the stage. For the next 85-minutes Butch, backed by American Hi-Fi, sent the Abbey Pub into a state of pandemonium. In all honesty, I’ve only seen this kind of participation from an audience a handful of times, in arenas and stadiums, by the likes of Bon Jovi and U2.

For the encores, Butch put away the acoustic guitar and brought out his Les Paul. He proved his wizardry with the axe as well, specifically on “Freak of the Week”, a minor hit for his previous band The Marvelous 3 from the late 90’s. After American Hi-Fi took their bows, Butch grabbed his acoustic one last time and started to sing to the crowd without any microphone and even his guitar was not plugged in. However, what then occurred was beyond surreal. He was singing and as soon as everyone realized the song was “Take Tomorrow” (off his debut solo disc on Arista Records), they sang along in unison. Butch then jumped off the stage and made his way to the middle of the crowd and as he motioned the crowd to sit down, they did. Talk about captivating an audience- only Bono could control a crowd like this. Nothing was plugged in; it was as if the power went out and only the vocal power and adoration of a few hundred fans could be heard. During the 85-minutes of pure chaos, Jen and I did not know any of the songs, but we walked out feeling like we witnessed something words could not even express. The entire show was awe-inspiring as this was an artist who had zero airplay in Chicago; yet every single soul in the place, present company excluded, was singing their hearts out with each and every word of the song. Not just the chorus, but the verses too!

Can you please, remind me how you feel
This emptiness is real
And I can't bear the thought of it
Can you please, remind me how to smile?
I lost track after awhile
Is happiness so hard to get

Over the next few months, I collected every little bit of Butch Walker music I could get my hands on. From the Marvelous 3 to his solo discs to his mid 90’s band Floyd’s Funk Revival. I was also fortunate to witness him live two other times, once this past November opening for Avril Lavigne (whom he produced the two lead singles off her sophomore album), a show he performed with grace and excellence. He was the best arena opener I have seen in over a decade. A month later, I was fortunate to see him again at the Metro in Chicago. Whether it was 16,000 fans or 1,000 fans his presence was otherworldly at both shows demonstrating that no matter what the size of the audience is, Butch Walker delivers at every show. The most astounding aspect of Butch’s career to date is his knack to increase his audience after each performance. He practically fills the 1,100 capacity Metro in Chicago, even though not a single station within a 90 mile radius of the city plays his music. It is mind boggling to me to think of what could potentially occur if his most recent album, “Letters”, ever received any kind of a promotional push. Butch Walker is one of the few artists with truly god-given talents I have ever laid eyes on and trust me, I’ve seen hundreds of them live. It kills me to see the most recent American Idol winner sell more records in one week than Butch has sold in his entire career. Butch Walker is one of the greatest pop-rock talents of our time and he can’t get airplay anywhere with his own music. Both “Letters” and “Left of Self-Centered” are an A&R man’s wet dream come true, they are filled with gorgeous melodies that would even make Desmond Child’s pants tight.

All of this forces me to ask one enormous question; does Sony Music have any idea what they have? Not only do they have a more than competent producer/songwriter/song doctor for hire, but they have a star on their hands, one that they could reap benefits from for decades. It’s atypical you can find a musician, no matter how gifted, that can excel, exceed expectations and mesmerize an audience from the word “go”. “Letters” is languishing on the record shelves and yet with proper promotion, this album has the capability to sell a few million easily. The songs are easy on the ears yet entirely distinctive and bursting with spirit. Then there is Butch’s secret weapon; his live show. In the last year, Butch Walker has made five trips to Chicago for support of “Letters” and has gone from selling a few hundred seats to over 1,000. No radio promotion is involved; this is purely a word of mouth endeavor. Could you imagine if Butch could get on David Letterman or any other program and he did his thing for 5-minutes? Sony would see the album increase sales ten-fold.

And after all this time
You were waiting on the ride
To stop at the place
Where they slowly replaced your life
Go get it right

On his most recent trip through Chicago in May 2005, Butch brought his new band to the Metro. As the lights dimmed at 9pm, his band immediately brought the energy level to a “10” with “Uncomfortably Numb” As Butch made his way onto the stage (in a jacket, jeans and Converse gym shoes) he had his back to the crowd, stood on the drum riser, raised his hands to the air and began clapping. Like a preacher asking for a “Halleluiah” at a Sunday congregation, the Metro faithful immediately duplicated their idol. For the next 90-minutes, the crowd would be held in a trance I almost never see at any show. We all stood there electrified as Butch somehow made 1,000 singing voices into a community of one which continued with “Maybe It’s Just Me”, “Don’t Move”, “So At Last” and “Race Cars and Goth Rock”. Each of these songs deepened the bond between the crowd and Butch.

Out of nowhere came his best impersonation of Pete Townsend as the band ripped into The Who’s “The Kids Are Alright”. No sooner are the walls shaking than the song segues into “#1 Summer Jam”. After a scorching solo, Butch brings the music down to near silence. You see him spin around as the sweat is flying off of his drenched body. As he looks into the audience, he does not even need to give them direction as they are chanting away “Come back Sunday, every day’s a Monday now that you’re gone”. As he smiles at the contributions of his faithful audience, he slowly picks up his guitar and you can literally see the sweat drip down the neck of the guitar. It hit me right then and there, not even 25-minutes into the show Butch Walker gives more of himself than most arena rockers give in a 2 hour show.

Old school fans miss the solo acoustic shows Butch used to do. However, he does a solo set at each show where he is left to entertain us with nothing but a piano and an acoustic guitar. Before he could get down to business, he received a sign from a girl asking to dance on stage with him, in honor of her sixteenth birthday. He pulled her out of the audience and says “Tonight we’re going to play ‘Make Your Dreams Come True” and proceeded to lead her over to the piano where he led the crowd in singing “Happy Birthday”. This young woman was given a moment that will be forever etched in her heart. Many acts take themselves far too seriously to ever really do anything like this, but Butch Walker did it with all smiles.

Now, before I can put into plain words the aura that the piano and the acoustic bring to the show, you need to have a clear picture of how impressive these campfire sing-alongs are. Last December, as I walked into the Metro, I met a musical cohort, Jennifer-whom I have seen numerous shows with over the years. We were both surprised to see each other, as neither of us knew the other loved Butch. I asked her how she came to know Butch and her story I’ll repeat here with some artistic license, as I feel it demonstrates the power of Butch as a live performer better than anything else;

I went to the Abbey Pub to see Fastball a few years back. When Butch Walker came out as the opener, the place went insane. It was just him and his guitar and yet every single person in the audience was singing along to every song, I sat there wondering, “Who the hell is this guy and why have I not heard of him before, he’s amazing”. When he left the stage, so did the entire Abbey Pub. I think I was one of a handful of people to stay behind and watch Fastball. Needless to say, I bought his cd on the spot that night and have been following him ever since.

This is merely one of dozens of stories I have heard from people over the last year as they engage me in how they discovered Butch. Each and every discovery has come through live performance. Butch’s solo spots are among the most intimate I have ever seen by any artist. I recently had a discussion about artists who could pull off an entire evening by themselves. This conversation evolved around the current Bruce Springsteen solo tour, which showcases Bruce on guitar and piano for two-hours. It’s a stunning testament to the artist that they can engage a crowd for such a long period by themselves alone, Butch does just this with familiar songs, new ones, covers and anything else he feels like. He knows he can take chances here because his fans are willing to see him go out on a limb. He does not need a band because he has his crowd to fall back on because when he needs a lift, they will be there to give it to him.

Beginning the solo set (on the piano) were a pair of songs from his Marvelous 3 days; “Radio Tokyo” and “Cigarette Lighter Love Song”, which pleased the hardcore fans. His enthralling execution of “Joan” is what brought the room to near silence as the crowd was completely focused on Butch’s vocals. “Joan” is a solemn and tranquil song about a woman who has been abused. Butch does not take the song lightly when performing it live. The crowd was so riveted they were whispering the lyrics giving the Metro a truly dreamlike vibe. The reverence his fans give his art is nearly unparalleled as virtually no other artist could command this level of attention. As he walked away from the piano and pulled out his acoustic guitar, the crowd was seduced once again as “Suburbia” opened the acoustic set. While he plowed through the tune it became apparent that Butch’s acoustic shows rock louder and harder than most stadium shows could ever hope. In a bit of comic relief, at the end of “Suburbia” Butch started singing “This sh*t is bananas” paying an homage (of sorts) to Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl”. He also performed a new song, “A Song Without A Chorus” which is reminiscent of a Johnny Cash country tune from the 60’s, a clever tongue-in-cheek song, which had debuted on Butch’s MySpace page just days earlier. It was a pleasant and light hearted addition to the set.

As the band returned to the stage, “The Best Thing You Never Had” was performed. During the second verse Butch noticed a girl holding her cell phone in the air; he grabbed it and began to sing into the phone and his microphone simultaneously, without missing a beat. As the main set came to an end, the strumming on his guitar was so forceful that almost all of the strings had been destroyed as the song continued to build until it climaxed like a cathedral collapsing. The evening came to a close with “Lights Out” which raises the roof whether the setting is an arena or a club. He went jacketless showing his dual Elvis’ tattoos on each of his arms (Costello and Presley) as he betrothed the audience and left them wanting more after 90-minutes. He would have performed longer but a curfew cut the show short.

Butch’s best chance at fame would be with the song, “Mixtape”. It’s infectious with a melodic riff to die for. I’m convinced that someone will cover this song in a few years and have an enormous hit with it. During the live performance, as the song surged from verse to chorus, I took stock of the audience and saw every jaw in the joint flapping in unison. Now, this is where I feel Butch is distinctive from other acts. Not only do the chorus and verses receive equal billing from the audience, but as I gazed over the crowd there were both sixteen and thirty-something girls losing their minds along with yuppies, Goth girls, punk guys, Abercrombie preps and dozens others. How many acts can say they have this level of devotion? Not many. The only other artist that comes to mind with an audience this varied is Prince, another multitalented showman who is also a top flight producer.

Butch’s crowd is always fixating on the author of the words being sung, they know these lyrics better than their own families’ birthdays. To paint you a picture with my pen and prose as to what this scene looks like, I can compare it to only one other song, Billy Joel’s “Piano Man”. Whereas “Piano Man” may be the song most people will sing when they have had a few and are filled up, Butch Walker fans sing his songs to fill themselves up. It’s reverse psychology. Say what you want about Billy Joel, but easily one of my Top-5 spine-tingling moments for live music is when I see “Piano Man”. There is a moment right before the final chorus when Billy stops performing the song and lets the 20,000 in attendance sing it back to him in unison. Cynic or not, it gives goose bumps every time. While Billy Joel has one major mind blowing moment, Butch has an entire show full of them. Every song could qualify as his “Piano Man” moment. I go and see other acts whose fans scream for them, but for Butch, they sing their hearts and souls out for him. Regardless of what kind of jeans or shoes they wore, the 1,000 fans that congregated in the Metro had that enlivened “feeling” of walking on air. Butch Walker’s music may be derivative, but his execution of his songs and performances take the art to another level. This is not some guy who got lucky, he is genuinely talented. To some his music is rock, others pop but to the near sold-out crowd it was both, yet they feel spiritual and soulful. Yes, even pop-rock has the ability to change lives. Some write songs to have a hit, Butch writes from the heart. Songs like “Mixtape”, “Alicia Amnesia” and “Grant Park”. These may be pop tunes on the surface, but because of Butch’s producing and performances the songs soar to another level.

Being a writer, my objective is to poetically write about what makes these artists tick. Why does their music have such a potent affect on me? It’s something I struggle to express as the sensation a certain song or performance gives you is something that is difficult to put into words. I have wanted to write an epic piece on Butch that would make people take notice of this staggering talent. Butch Walker is unlike any other artist I have ever encountered. I have also never seen a more dedicated fan base…ever. Butch’s fans don’t want the easy way out, they want to be challenged. On the concert stage, Butch Walker may leave a pint of blood, but his fans leave their hearts.

No I can't find the words cause I lost them the minute
They fell out my mouth, and it's love and I'm in it

Billie Jo made her way to Chicago for a landmark birthday in December 2004 to see Butch Walker at the Metro. After the show she asked me to lead the way to a bar in the city. As we entered the bar, one could see the smoke slowly rising to the moody lighting and drinks were being poured and consumed. At the very end of the smoky bar you could see the DJ spinning old metal vinyl as Judas Priest, Motley Crue, Joan Jett, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath soared through the speakers. Holding court at the bar, with a few select friends, was the man who had given the golden touch to pop artists and rockers alike. We sat at a table at the back and after a few drinks, Billie Jo asked me if I wanted to meet Butch. I agreed and she guided me to the bar and introduced me as the person who had written a glowing review of his opening set for Avril Lavigne the month before (his manager apparently loved the review). He smiled and thanked me and shook my hand. I won’t lie; it was surreal to grasp the hand that has created some of the catchiest music on radio today (Bowling For Soup, Avril Lavigne, SR-71, Lit, American Hi-Fi, The Donnas). In fact, as wild and appealing as he was on stage, in person, he is more reserved and almost shy. We talked for a while about his upcoming producing projects and what 2005 had in store for him. Billie Jo and I asked him what he was going to do without American Hi-Fi as a backing band (they had to support their Butch produced disc in the spring). He shot us a million dollar smile, gave a look of coolness and simply said “I’ll just go out by myself and play wherever I can”. This quote sums up who Butch Walker is better than any prose I could ever compose. Despite healthy paychecks for producing top tier artists, at his core Butch Walker is a struggling artist who loves music and lives to perform. He’s been signed to every label imaginable, has broken up bands up to get out of their contracts and yet no matter what obstacles are put in front of him; he always rises from the ashes more determined than before. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think any amount of success or set back would ever stop him from performing and making music.

Give me all your fear, throw it all away
Think about the good things, no matter what they say
We'll take tomorrow baby
One day at a time
-“Take Tomorrow”

POST SCRIPT: It’s Father’s Day and my better half Jen and I are driving in my car when we hear “Mixtape” on the radio. We looked at each other in shock as we could not believe what we were hearing. The next day, Butch wrote this in his online diary.

Guess what? 9 months, 2 weeks, and 3 days after my album "Letters" hit the shelves, a radio station (outside of ATL) sifted through their pile of cd's on their desk and discovered my single "Mixtape", and started to play it in rotation! The station is WTMX in Chicago, and they are playing it pretty solid! I wanna say mad props to them and if you live in the area (or listen to them online at www.wtmx.com), you should call them up and tell them that their station sounds even cooler now and tell them to keep playing the sh*t out of it! Hey, maybe it will catch on, and i will be huge, get to drive a yellow hummer, and wear a diamond encrusted cross (6''x 4'' in size) around my neck... kidding.

I guess anything is possible. Call it luck, call it synchronicity, but this is merely stars aligning for an artist who deserves to have them align perfectly. The above posting has the giddiness of an artist who heard his song on the radio for the first time. In an industry full of artists who use smoke and mirrors to hide their true selves in order to appear cool, Butch Walker is cool for being himself and doing things the only way he should…his way.

There's the right way, then there's my way
-“My Way”