John Butler Trio @ House of Blues
When I was in high school I stumbled upon John Butler through my brother. Instantly amazed by his finger-style guitar picking, I’ve followed him since. I have never seen anyone near his skill level using this style, and watching it is alone worth the ticket price. Last summer Cafe Con Leche and I stayed to the very end of Wakarusa 2010, and the show was like one of the swelling hot air balloons floating around, bursting into sunshine. Each time I see him, it amplifies a different chord of my life. I always come away with a new perspective, a rediscovered ideal.
JBT started off with “Used To Get High”. It was instantly infectious, and had the crowd singing by the end. The show at Wakarusa felt more reggae – partially because of the artists leading up, partially because it’s hard to contain sound in a field on a mountain. No complaints at all – but the House of Blues show had clarity and a rock sound that matches the latest album, April Uprising. The sound difference was most evident when Byron Luitors (bass) brought out the didgeridoo on “Treat Yo Mama” which had a slow, effervescent build that filled the room. Butler brings out a lap steel for this song, where the breaks are like a sighing moan that escape into hope.
Bomba and Luitors left after the first 6 songs, for Butler’s usual mid-performance acoustic set. There are parts of the show that seem to happen each night, such as this and a drum mash-up near the end which has Butler and Luitors on each side of Bomba, drumming it out. He also usually voices respect for Native Americans, and always repeatedly thanks the crew. It feels fresh, but I wish they would change up the routine a bit. The songs are never the same though, and they have a good time on stage together. It feels like the Aussie-American solidified his trio in April 2009, after 10 years of various change-ups, with Nicky Bomba (drums) and Byron Luitors.
During the first acoustic solo he got serious with “Ocean”. This is his masterpiece. He wrote it thirteen years ago, and plays it relatively often at shows, so it continues to evolve. That night he said it was the way he felt about tonight, about us, about the world, about everything – “I don’t have words to describe it, all I have is this”. In this near 10-minute instrumental song, Butler takes you down, gets you in the dirt and despair of life – shows you the madness of men. Then he lifts you. Lifts you to hope, to dream – to stop dreaming and go out and do something. It’s hard to get across, but recently I watched It Might Get Loud, where Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin describes writing “Stairway To Heaven” as wanting “something that was going to keep increasing, building, accelerating from the beginning til the very end, like an orgasm”. Kind of sneaks up on you, starts off all innocent, doesn’t sound too complex. By the end, it’s like it’s just you and him in the room, with a sound that is unmatched. It was different than anything on YouTube or live albums. You just have to be in the room. I’ve never had an instrumental song played live invoke tears. This will go down as my favorite song performance – ever.
The night as a whole was peaceful and energetic. The three laugh on stage together and watch for cues in the midst of improvisation. That night Butler had a hard time getting his second solo (“Peaches and Cream”) started in the encore, joking with a fan that he should sing the soft, beautiful guitar picking with a heavy metal voice, tried it, then couldn’t stop laughing. At the end of “Peaches and Cream” Butler kept the crowd singing for a few minutes together – “All I know is, all I know is, I love you.” He had the audience applaud the opener numerous times, and told us quite vehemently we need to buy music to support artists. “C’mon Now” was a massive jump party. “Zebra” is one of my favs to hear live because of the riffs and this is generally the song where they have extended solos – it was extra funkalicious with Butler singing “I can be ignorant or I could be informed; I could lead my life man or I could be lead.” A long show with a super short encore wait. They ended with a heavy version of “One Way Road” and lots of peace signs.
Most of the lyrics are pretty literal. It’s not hard to find the meaning he wants to get across, which is probably why so many younger people like him. Todd Snider and John Prine have gorgeous songs, but they are under-appreciated because people miss (or just don’t try to find) the message within. It’s almost like Butler is targeting the people who don’t stop and think for themselves, and try to persuade them to do just that.
The albums have evolved over the years, become more complex, adding new styles. The newest release, April Uprising, combines the old busking style, rock, reggae, blues and funk. Generally the message of everything is making the world better. In an interview with Relix Magazine, Butler explains he isn’t an activist: “I find it really hard to believe the ideas of clean air, clean water, justice, peace, freedom and respect are a political or environmental point of view. To me, it’s just politicizing common sense.”
The studio albums are tame compared to the live shows. Go.
Setlist: Used To Get High, I’d Do Anything, Don’t Wanna See Your Face, Revolution, Better Than, Treat Yo Mama, Losing You, Ocean, Ragged Mile, Good Excuse, Zebra, C’mon Now
Encore: Peaches & Cream, Close To You, Funky Tonight, One Way Road
Enjoy a selection of black/white photos from the show: