John Butler Trio
August 12, 2011
John Butler's favorite guitar has 11 strings. Friday night he also played banjo, ukulele, some sort of lap acoustic guitar using a metal bar on the frets like a steel guitar, a standard issue 6-string acoustic guitar, a Les Paul and a Stratocaster. But mainly he played his 11-string acoustic a 12-string with one string removed (Butler is a bit of an eccentric). And why not? He could make that guitar sound like practically anything he wanted. He played it as a straight acoustic guitar, used a wah-wah pedal, added some reverb/echo, or ran it through a synthesizer for some spacey washes and synthesized single note runs, sometimes sounding like Return to Forever
-era Chick Corea
. His playing style was just as versatile as his tone, integrating finger-picking with a slide, switched to playing rhythm...even guitar percussion. The result was a wide variety of sounds and styles that made a two-and-a half hour concert seem to pass like only minutes.
Butler and his trio are from Australia, but like so many other artists that tour the world (or at least the U.S.), he's fallen for Red Rocks. He just released a two-C/DVD set of his concert there in 2010Red Rocks Revolution
(ATO, 2011). This year's show was sold out or close to it, with a full moon, a near cloudless sky and temperatures in the low 80s making for perfect conditions.
The trio's sound was mostly rock-based, with influences from blues, jazz, funk, bluegrass and reggae. Butler's band mates emulated their leader in playing a number of different instruments, furthering the sonic diversity. Bassist Byron Luiters switched between electric and acoustic basses and, for one tune, played his acoustic bass simultaneously with a didgeridoo. That particular didgeridoo was about six or seven feet long and had its own stand, allowing Luiters to blow into it and work the bass at the same time. Didgeridoos only play a single note, so while it was droning, the band went into a one-chord hypnotic jam. Drummer Nicky Bomba used an expansive drum kit, featuring bongos that he played with his sticks, a steel drum for some melodic interest and, of course, a cowbell. Butler, himself, branched out beyond stringed instruments and played harmonica and drums as well.
The band is known for its chunky-funky sound, with hits like "Funky Tonight" and "Zebra," which it saved for late in the show. The trio started with a few tunes that weren't quite as manically funky, but still set an energetic party vibe. "One Way Road," from April Uprising
(ATO, 2010) and "Used to Get High," from Grand National
(Atlantic, 2007) got the crowd on its feet, where it stayed for most of the night. "Used to Get High" is a good example of the trio's rhythmic technique, with the vocals setting the groove as much as the bass and drums. It's kind of like rap, only better. Obviously, two-and-a-half hours of energetic funk/rock was going to be too much, especially at this altitude, so like any good set list designer, Butler backed off the intensity for awhile. He brought out his ukulele for the sweet "Goovin' Slowly," followed by several other slightly more laidback tunes including, the instrumental "Ocean," focusing entirely on Butler's guitar technique.
The appearance of the banjo meant "Better Than," another JBT hit, but before launching it, the band broke into a short instrumental bluegrass breakdown. "Zebra" was Butler's first big hit and has one of those infectious bluesy licks that sticks in the head for days. The trio was joined on this one by Butler's brother-in-law on keyboards, and another relative on additional percussion. The set closer, "Funky Tonight," was a tour de force
with room for bass and drum solos. By this point in the program, the band was asking for audience participation, some of which worked and some of which got a little tedious. Organizing the crowd to do the wave, starting at the bottom of the amphitheater and going to the top was kind of fun. A little bit of the call-and-response was okay, but after Butler did that for awhile, followed by Bomba doing the same thing, it started to seem a little silly. Still, the undeniable groove of "Funky Tonight" came through loud and clear.
For the first encore, "Losing You," Butler performed a duet with his wife, Danielle Caruana, also known as Mama Kin. The final song of the evening, "Close to You," was just as anthemic as "Funky Tonight" and put the perfect capper on the evening.
Butler is a bit of a throwback with his political activism. That sort of thing used to be common among rock stars, at least it was 40 years ago or so. Certainly, the Vietnam War was a catalyst for protest, but environmental activism and social justice were common themes as well. These days, onstage discussion of issues like that seems rare. One of Butler's interests is aboriginal people; he has been involved in Australia in efforts to help that continent's first people and is similarly interested in Native Americans. Friday night, the show started with a 15-minute demonstration of Native American dances, presented by eight or so local dancers, and Butler invited them back to the stage to dance during "Revolution." His other cause was a fight against Chevron, which is planning to build a large liquefied natural gas project in and near the Kimberley, in Western Australia. This is a natural and indigenous cultural area that Butler and others fear will be harmed by the hydrocarbon development. During the encore, Butler explained that he and Mama Kin had re-recorded "Losing You" to help raise funds for the fight against the development.
Note for guitar heads: the 11 string guitar is basically a 12 string with one string removed. Butler is an eccentric.