John Butler Trio, Fonda Theatre Hollywood, CA- 2/21
Photo by Allison Murphy
With the sustained standing ovation from the sold-out audience finally subdued, John Butler stepped to the microphone and shouted in ironic mockery, ‘Self-indulgence is alive and well.’ He was referring to his near 15-minute, 12-string guitar solo “Ocean,” the evening’s opus magnum he had just completed in flawless, breathtaking fashion during his Trio’s Flesh and Blood tour stop at Hollywood’s Fonda Theatre. If the shaggy singer-songwriter was indeed indulging his inner guitar hero, Butler should not only be encouraged, but implored to continue to do so.
The 38-year-old California native better known as a longtime resident and star in Australia is on the road in support of his latest release, Flesh and Blood, with much of the concert’s selections coming from the new album. Opening with the foreboding “Revolution,” into the banjo ballad “Born to Ramble,” the first of the Flesh material arrived with the darkly shaded “Bullet Girl,” then “Cold Wind,” the evening holding on to a heaviness alleviated by “One Way Road,” its glowing bop lightening the load. Clenched in the grip of another new cut, the electrified “Blame it on Me,” the capacity crowd fell under a three-piece reggae-tinged spell, waves of feedback washing over its swaying mass.
Butler is often hypnotic, his fingerstyle technique, at once a sonic and visual marvel, coupled with the ripped denim and red neckerchief of an elegant street busker is perhaps best appreciated in a live setting. Stomping in time while notes come in flurries, then in swells, his approach, born in a petri dish of bluegrass dexterity, back country blues, and funked-up folk, relies on his polished musicianship, as well as that of drummer Grant Gerathy and bassist Byron Luiters, and is as engaging to the eyes as to the ears. In fact, Butler’s lack of a stronger U.S. fanbase could be attributed simply to exposure, something a summer on the festival circuit in front of tens of thousands may rectify.
The second half of the Fonda Theatre performance was not anticlimactic, but it did pale in comparison to the layered, composed almost quarter-hour of brilliance that was the aforementioned “Ocean.” More from Flesh and Blood, plus hit “Better Than,” and encores of “Livin’ in the City” and “Funky Tonight” were plated with spirit and emotion, with his most ardent supporters singing along to both old and new, but never peaked as high as that moment. Butler must know the challenge of lifting his audience back up after such a display, and certainly he carries the necessary energy and confidence over the entire two-hour concert. Still, it’s that mid-show 12-string symphony that resonated longest after the lights came up and the doors swung open, out into the Hollywood night.