The two-and-half-hour set was too short. As the person who chronically falls asleep in movie theatres, regardless of how funny or action-packed the film may be, I would rarely, if ever, say this about any entertainment event. This was live music, however, and the band was The John Butler Trio, the combination of which for me was pure, unadulterated bliss.
John Butler took the stage in front of a full house at Webster Hall in New York City looking fresh off the plane from his hometown of Perth on the western shores of Australia: bronzed skin, long, dirty-blonde dreadlocks tied back in his signature navy blue bandana, jeans, and clunky boots. The line-up of his at least ten guitars ranging from a steel lap guitar, a twelve-stringer, and a host of acoustics stood upright like little soldiers behind him, their strings aching to be strummed. An Australian flag hung across a set of amps. His drummer and bassist, Michael Barker and Shannon Birchall, inconspicuously took their place center and right, respectively. The two did not stay inconspicuous for long.
The trio played every song on their newest album, Grand National, which was released earlier this year. The story of the band is a rags-to-riches one: having remained independent and choosing to brave the music world sans-label, their first record broke records after staying in the Australian national alternative charts for nine months, rising to number one three times. After the success of their Sunrise Over Sea album abroad, which received five times platinum status within Australia for 350,000 records sold, the JBT name was finally recognized outside of Australia. They are currently on their worldwide tour to promote Grand National, a trip that will take them throughout the U.S., all over Europe, to Fuji, and eventually back to Australia.
Their music is soulful and a little bit country. Bluesgrassy riffs intermingle with groove jams and reggae-inspired melodies (“Groovin’ Slowly” and “Used to Get High” are good examples). JBT dedicated “Gov Did Nothin” to the victims of Hurricane Katrina, a song he wrote after the destruction and delayed reaction of the Bush administration to send aid and manpower to New Orleans (I would have liked to see what he would say about his own country’s Prime Minister, John Howard, who is receiving much criticism these days for his delayed response to climate change and the massive, six-year drought Australia is now experiencing). The crowd went wild. “Losing You,” an acoustic love ballad, sealed the deal for the women in the audience, while “Ocean,” his ten-minute solo jam that any JBT groupie knows and adores, made the show for anyone who has ever picked up a guitar. John Butler’s signature move is the slide, and he used it aggressively throughout the show; he showed off his raw harmonica skills in “Daniella.”
After the set, the crowd went nuts. People were hanging over balconies and railings, girls were taking their shirts off and…well, that is a huge lie, but the crowd really would have done anything to get them back on stage. After a painfully extended five minutes, the trio took the stage for three more (how fitting). They finished it up with “Better Than,” one of my personal favorites.
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