“Nimble-fingered maniac” Todd Butler makes the leap from concert stage to the theatrical kind ~~
By Jan Beecher ~~
On a gentle west coast evening, Todd Butler is opening the Islands Folk Festival at Providence Farm near Duncan, BC. I have just arrived along with a thousand or so other people for a weekend of music and festival-like festivities. It’s Butler’s job to get the show started and get the crowd “in the mood,” and he does it extremely well. By the end of his set a full audience has gathered and we are dancing, clapping to the beat and, of course, laughing.
Butler is funny. He hits on hippies and parents and wrestlers. In all honesty, my mp3 isn’t loaded with parodies, but who doesn’t enjoy good a laugh?
And then the jester on the stage plays “Home.” It’s about moving from the prairies to Vancouver Island. It isn’t funny — it’s strong and emotional and it blows me away.
That’s the thing about Todd Butler: he isn’t just another funny guy.
He isn’t even just another festival act. This month, Vancouver’s Firehall Theatre premieres Debt –The Musical, a spoof on the theme of bankruptcy written by Vancouver playwright Leslie Mildiner, with songs by Butler. His migration from concert stage to the theatrical variety has been a long time in the works — 19 years, to be exact. The two started collaborating on the project while working as street entertainers in Whistler, BC in 1991. Maybe their dedication to the subject has something to do with the fact that both have lived it.
“There’s a song in the musical that’s called ‘Down Under Ground,’ says Butler, “and it’s about basement dwellers, people who live in basement suites. You buy a house, mortgage up the ying-yang; then you fix the basement suite up and rent it out to some college student or some young couple; and they pay your mortgage. So this is happening all over, and then the economic downturn comes and the house value goes way down, and the young couple in the basement can now afford to buy a house and become above ground dwellers and get their own basement dwellers. Then people get so far in debt that they lose everything and they end up back in the basement. So it’s kind of like this circle.
“And I lived that. So did Leslie.”
Now living in Courtenay, BC on northern Vancouver Island, Butler isn’t a complete stranger to theatre. His father sang with the Edmonton Opera and also ran the Alberta Opera Touring Association, which toured the province, performing productions for schools and communities. Todd toured in The Mikado with them, and also performed in musicals in high school. “I did Oklahoma, Kismet, Carousel, and, in grade 12, I played Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof,” he remembers. “[Musicals were] the reason I stayed in high school.”
But it’s his pickin’ that first brought him professional notice. Butler may have made his name as a satirist, but it’s his prowess on the guitar that earns him praise from his peers. “He’s a nimble fingered maniac,” says Spirit of the West Drummer Vince Ditrich, who also drums for Butler’s band. “It’s both his blessing and his curse that he is clever and funny.” Ditrich has known Butler for a long time. “We’re both ‘recovering Albertans,’” he says. Ditrich had heard of Butler long before he met him, “because he is a brilliant musician. People see him on stage and they go, ‘Oh yeah, that’s Butler, he’s the comedian,’ then they go, ‘Holy shit! he can play!’”
Ditrich compares Butler’s conundrum to that of Steve Martin — a famous comedian who is also an exceptional banjo player. Did you know that Steve Martin used to play for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band?
Butler has never worked at anything but music. Well, almost never. “I worked three weeks as a construction schlepper. That’s it. I’ve always made a living as a musician, mainly in bars and pubs. When I got out of high school I went on the road with a rock n’ roll band and just never looked back.”
The comedy came naturally after that. “I guess I have always been able to write satire,” he says. In the late ‘90s, Butler got his big national break thanks to the Vancouver Comedy Festival, where he was a street performer. “I was doing a one-man satirical comedy show — some impressions, some parodies, some satire and stuff — and playing the guitar.” When CBC Radio producer Brian Hill turned to the festival for talent to put on the west coast leg of the radio show “Madly Off In All Directions,” its director gave him Butler’s name.
“Brian called me and said, ‘Would you like to be on ‘Madly Off In All Directions’ with Lorne Elliott?’ and I said, ‘Sure, I’d love to.’ Hill called him every year after that, for the show’s duration. “Whenever they were in western Canada, he would call me and I would be on the show. There were years I did it twice.” He even hosted the show when Elliott took a brief sabbatical. Butler boasts, “I actually hold the record — the show’s been cancelled now, so the record is untouchable — I hold the record for the most appearances on ‘Madly Off In All Directions.'”
Around the same time Butler started with “Madly Off,” he sent a parody he’d written to CBC’s morning show in Vancouver. “It was when Chretién choked that guy? I wrote a parody of a Steve Miller song called “The Joker,” and I called it “The Choker.” And I sang it as Chretié n.” Butler assumes a frighteningly accurate Chretié n voice and croons, “Some people call me the space cadet/ Some call me the gangster of Hull.”
The producers loved it. They invited him in to do a piece about Vancouver and before long they were calling him on a regular basis. “I did a show just about every week — some of them live over the phone,” says Butler. “They’d call me: ‘Todd, you know the salmon are blah, blah, blah . . . do you have any ideas?’ They made it sound like it was off the cuff, but actually they’d phoned a couple of days before. I’d put the phone down and sing into the phone.”
Another CBC connection was a co-producer for “Madly Off In All Directions,” Tracy Rideout. She moved on in her career to become head of comedy acquisitions for the national radio network and brought Todd’s music with her. “I’d produce something, record it, and send it to her and she’d send it out to all the bureaus across Canada.” Early in 2009, Butler sent her “Turkey Gravy,” Billy Bob Thornton’s “Q” debacle, “and it got played all over the place; the whole country was playing it. So the door’s still open for me there. I backed off a bit because it’s fairly time consuming and I’m working on other things.”
“Other things” include his less comedic ventures.
“I‘ve tried to get into the major folk festivals and I haven’t been able to crack it. They just won’t hire me yet. I don’t know why that is, but I think it has something to do with my penchant for parodies. I do a lot of the local festivals like Powell River. I’ve done Powell River eight years in a row and Vancouver Island Music Fest. I did the Calgary Folk Fest too, actually.” Some people would say that the latter is a major festival, but them are mere prairie folk. Apparently Butler has his eyes on even bigger stakes. He wants to be recognized as a guitarist and songwriter, not a musical satirist.
“Home” is perhaps Butler’s most well known song outside of the parody genre. He calls it his micro-hit. “And that’s thanks to one man, David Grierson. Unfortunately, he passed away. David had a morning show in Vancouver, and he asked me to come in when he heard that song, “Home.” And I thought ‘Okay, do comedy,’ because they always wanted me to do comedy, and he said, ‘No, I want you to play that one.’ So I did, and then he was really instrumental in getting that song out.”
Grierson included “Home” on a CD compilation of all his guests, including Canadian favorites like John Mann and Spirit of the West. “All these artists who are serious artists — he put me in there with them, and that really helped to expose people to the fact that I [do other music]. So now I’m really pursuing that.”
Witness his last couple of albums, Idle Canadian and Hamburger Soup. In addition to two CDs with slide guitarist Doug Cox, Butler has released another three of his own, of which only one, Todd Butler Goes Madly Off – Live, a compilation of songs and stand-up from his radio gig, is strictly comedic. Idle Canadian, on the other hand, is a collection of, as Butler describes them, “socially conscious songs.” Social consciousness, mind you, sometimes requires an even bigger sense of humour than parodies. Consider these lyrics from “Bushed”:
I’ve been terrorized, been hypnotized
I’ve been Osama lobotomized and I’m Bushed
From getting’ Dicked around
I been Rums-felled, been Colin-poled
Been Saddam down that rabbit-holed, and I’m Bushed
From gettin’ Dicked around
Socially conscious? Yes. Funny? I’m afraid so.