John Butler Trio, Wolf Trap Vienna, VA- 6/18
John Butler Trio graced the Wolf Trap Center for Performing Arts in Vienna, VA amidst a short but sweet North American tour in support of his sixth studio effort; Flesh & Blood. Butler’s latest album was recorded between 2012-2013 at The Compound in Western Australia and was released in February earlier this year.
The Australian native has blossomed into an international sensation since the release of his debut self-titled studio album in 1998. Butler captivates audiences and has developed a reputation for his adept finger-picking and unique, intricate guitar strumming techniques that sound as if his right hand is playing more of a percussion instrument and not a guitar. This strumming pattern is one of the many signature trademarks, which separates John Butler as a premier musician and true master of his craft. This year’s line-up found a small change amongst the trio; Nicky Bomba, who’s been in multiple renditions of the backing line up, was replaced with Grant Gerathy on drums.
The evening opened up with Allen Stone warming up the stage. Stone provided his rich, soulful blues music with full showmanship and wasted no time getting the crowd interactive and dancing out of their seats. Stone sounds like a hybrid between Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Bill Withers and his vocal range is astonishing. Stone graced the stage for just under an hour and left the crowd more than satisfied for the rest of the evenings music that was yet to unfold.
After a brief set change, the John Butler Trio took the stage just before nine o’clock and wasted no time dipping into their plethora of new material as they opened with “Cold Wind,” a gripping number off Flesh & Blood that showcases Butler’s slide guitar wrapping around his chilling lyrics. Moving forward, the band kept the momentum in full swing as the band dropped into “Used to Get High,” off one of the band’s most celebrated albums, Grand National. The energy was astronomical as the crowd was singing along with every word. Continuing the trajectory of incorporating new songs into their live set, JBT segued nicely into “Bullet Girl,” a slow paced ballad that melodically paints a picture of unbreakable love.
The band decided to pull out a crowd favorite from their album April Uprising as they moved into the heavy-hitting anthem “I’d Do Anything.” The rugged, distortion of effects could be heard crashing down through the PA system reaching the highest part of the lawn, simultaneously sending the crowd into a whirlwind of a dancing frenzy. Butler incorporates an abundance of well-timed and perfectly fitting effects that only highlight his music, a true rarity when other artists hide behind the mask of distortion or effects. Where other musicians fail with this dilemma, Butler excels triumphantly.
JBT powered through their set by opening up and exploring their new catalog. Songs like “Devil Woman” and “Only One” were each treated to an extended walk of improvisation, showcasing the band’s ability to blend a variety of genres on the spot through improvisation, but also staying true to the deep embedded roots of the song’s foundation.
The band seems to have one foot firmly plated in the past and one foot strongly moving forward to unexplored musical territories. JBT finds no problem keeping songs fresh from their past and incorporating them into their modern sets. For example, as the band prepared to drop into “Better Than,” John Butler made perfect use of his instrument switch to the banjo by playing a solo traditional bluegrass ditty called “Highty Ho” before the rest of the band took form and slammed into the song as we know it. The band then continued with the playful manner by exchanging a nice vocal jam with the crowd, which caught on quickly and had full participation. JBT were obviously enjoying the ambiance of the crowd as they kept the consistency alive. There’s a particular phenomenon that happens when the crowd and the audience are locked into a momentum like this, a true phenomenon that any average fan of live music is no stranger to. That moment when the music has complete control and unfolds to limitless possibilities. Where band and the crowd have given themselves to the moment, feeding off the energy of surrendering to the unknown. This movement can only be done together otherwise its impossible but when it does happen, true beauty fills the air. Every now and then, as fans, we get a quick reminder of why we come back time and time again. This particular version of “Better Than” was a perfect reminder.
One of the new songs off Flesh & Blood with the most obvious potential is “Blame It On Me.” The foundation of this number is comprised of a dark and psychedelic funk that gets dropped into a pocket groove, creating the perfect frame for the simplicity behind the song’s lyrics. Even the studio version clocks in just over six minutes long and there were no compromise of jamming the song out live. Butler flawlessly built his improvisation in a series of layers. Butler demonstrated good patience, listening to his backing band out of the gates and built upon their rhythmic foundation. Each time adding some more flavor and speed. The song climaxed with power as Butler reprised the lyrics before the song came to a halt.
The band then delivered a beautiful combination of “Pickapart” > “Ocean” and right when the show appeared to come to the close, Butler approached the microphone.“I want you to sing this next song like you’re free, because you are. While you’ve got the time, while you’ve got the breath,” said Butler before the band crashed into “Zebra,” creating a wave of excitement into the sea of dancing fans. The crowd obliged the Australian native’s request and sang the lyrics with conviction.
Just as heat lighting started to form behind the venue, Butler came out for the encore solo with an acoustic guitar and played a soothing version of “Loosing You,” before the rest of the band returned and delivered a smoking version of “Living In the City,” which was the first official single released off the new album. The high energy of this song carried the momentum into an improvisational funk jam that flowed nicely into “Funky Tonight.” It was the perfect way to cap off the evening. The band left it all out on stage and made sure to deliver their best efforts for their fans. Currently, the band will continue to promote their new album extensively through Europe, over to Japan and return to the United States at the end of July for a string of dates in August.