John Butler Trio, Hiro Ballroom, NYC- 3/6
Many bands play “intro” music before they arrive on stage, usually in the form of a television theme song. This is a puzzling practice, as it raises some questions. Why this song? What is the artist trying to say? Are they being ironic or sincere? For their recent New York City performance, the John Butler Trio opted for a song that simply foreshadowed what was to come Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good.”
The band did not necessarily need any help setting a tone for the evening. The intimate vibe of the Hiro Ballroom alone put the audience in a sedate frame of mind. The venue was a perfect choice for the John Butler Trio to preview their forthcoming album, Grand National. Throughout the performance, the group performed with a surprisingly relaxed chemistry rather than their usual tight-knit velocity. This subdued affair put Butler in a talkative mood. Often, he would tell stories about the new material (such as writing a song on the ukulele, how he asked his in-laws to marry their daughter, or just referring to his dreadlocked self as a “hair farmer”), giving the show an MTV Unplugged feel.
Throughout the night, the John Butler Trio sounded revitalized as they charged into their new material. Leadoff song “Used To Get High” derived its funk vibe from the members’ forceful attack. The organic rock (and potential jam vehicle) of “Daniela” was accented with some spirited beat-boxing and bongos from drummer Michael Barker. Butler himself is usually not a flashy guitarist, but simultaneously picking, using a slide, and riffing on the harmonica on the song shows the prowess he is capable of. The majority of the songs on Grand National find the Trio incorporating elements of reggae, ska, and other genres into their jam-friendly sound. The John Butler Trio could have gotten away with simply treading previous ground and been successful, but by infusing new genres, their worldly atmosphere remains lush and invigorating. Their earthy vibe brings to mind the repertoire of Ben Harper, Xavier Rudd and other contemporaries. For instance, first single “Better Than,” buoyed a bouncing banjo courtesy of Butler, has that pop appeal of early Dave Matthews Band or Dispatch. Don’t be surprised to hear this song all over the radio soon.
In the past, the band has never been shy about its political philosophies. Shockingly, only one song delved into politics. “Gov Did Nothing” concerned the US government’s response, or lack thereof, to Hurricane Katrina. The striking lyrics and overall message, however, were lost in Butler’s frenzied vocal delivery. The band tried to amend this shortcoming (to mixed results) with a dueling jam between bongos and lap/steel guitar as bassist Shannon Birchall chimed in on cowbell. The group did not forget the night’s mantra of “feeling good,” as the Trio took the title “Groovin’ Slowly” to heart. This slow tempo reggae number proved that for all the blindingly fast jams the group is capable of (check out live takes of “Betterman” or “Pickapart” as examples), the John Butler Trio is well suited for slower paced material.
The energy that each band member had did not always translate into their music. A new instrumental piece featuring only Butler (which he wrote while busking in Australia) on acoustic guitar failed to engage any interest. Sure, guitar tricks like tapping the bridge and lightning fast picking (Butler wears synthetic fingernails to aid his style) are crowd pleasers, but his aimless noodling around became downright grating after several minutes. The Trio seemingly reserved all their enthusiasm for their new songs, as the two older tracks they relied upon, “Zebra” and “Something’s Gotta Give,” were zapped of excitement. It might be unfair to criticize a band’s older material at a new album preview show, but why bust out songs from the back catalog if you won’t give them due treatment?
The Trio saved some of the “feeling good” vibe to finish out the show with. The loose arrangement of “Good Excuse” complemented the song’s bouncy ska beat. As the title suggests, “Funky Tonight,” the lone encore, showcased the John Butler Trio’s knack for combining speedy rock with raw funk. One can easily imagine folks dancing around at festivals because to the song’s furious pace. For having only three members in the band, the John Butler Trio create a loud ruckus, as if six people comprised the group.
The evening closed out the John Butler Trio’s short US album preview tour. If the show was any sort of testament to the forthcoming Grand National, the band is destined for grand things in and outside of the jam community. Be it on disc or on the stage, you can bet the John Butler Trio will try to make you “feel good.”