The most amazing thing about singer-guitarist Jonathan Butler is that he isn’t better known. With two Grammy nominations and a gold record under his belt, he would seem ripe for major stardom. But it still hasn’t happened.
The South African-born performer’s appearance at the Pantages on Friday night underscored the fact that a good portion of the music audience is missing an opportunity to see a star in the making. Roving the stage with the dynamic energy of a young James Brown, ripping off guitar licks with the creative ingenuity of a George Benson, singing with the style and communication of an Al Jarreau, Butler gave a performance that was just about as good as a pop music concert can get.
Add to the fact that he wrote most of the material he sang, and the picture of an artist destined for much, much bigger things came clearly into focus.
Butler opened his set with an instrumental in which his left-handed guitar chording exploded with bristling, brasslike clusters. Shifting to single-note lines, he spun out a sequence of disjunct melodies (blended, occasionally, with vocal scatting) that took persistently startling twists and turns.
His singing was as good as his playing. On “I’m a Sucker for You” (from his new album) and “Lies” (a Grammy nomination in 1988), Butler told his stories of capricious desire in rhythmic bursts of high-voltage energy. Softer ballads--"True Love Never Fails” and “More Than Friends” (his current single)--were treated gentler and more sweetly, but without ever losing the undercurrent of performing passion that is intrinsic to Butler’s singing.
Angela Bofill, opening the program, sounded a bit more subdued than usual. Halfway through “Down the Line,” however, she broke out in a soaring vocal improvisation that recalled how good she can be when she is at her best.
Saxophonist Najee, also on the bill, displayed characteristically broad strokes of bright musical colors, but his finest moments came during a beautifully basic chorus on the standard “When Sunny Gets Blue.”