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Published: 2015/08/13
by Reanna Feinberg

John Butler Trio, Britt Festival, Jacksonville, OR- 7/25

A schizophrenic folk band, The John Butler Trio played dulcet, skillful, funky, positive and interesting music on the verge of pop, sometimes bathing right in that barrel, but with an edge that simply rocked. A new instrument walked on stage for nearly every song. John Butler played each as if inviting a special guest to stage for a duet. An acoustic guitar, electric guitar, slide guitar, dobro, banjo—he cycled through and back; sometimes hooked up to the highly amplified sound system and technologically enhancing tools, other times he remained acoustic. Showcasing power and beauty, Butler knew how to hold down a note and make it scream—then continue to play there, discerning tonal syllables clearly. The banjo skipped to a playful jaunt of Better Than while the dobro and slide guitar sauntered a jive that dug in and gasped. A man of skill and diverse range, I imagine he would lick every cherry in a bowl, then eat each a little differently.

Butler initiated each song, creating a wash of sound for the others to step into; they joined him like tributaries meeting the main vein with a collective current that carved new landscape. The bassist, Byron Luiters, also dabbled in eclectic versatility, starting with a keyboard and moving through a variety of basses from electric to upright. The drummer, Grant Gerathy, simply played the drums. Keeping up with his exploratory bandmates, he played them as if they were many instruments at once.

Butler’s been playing music since the age of 16 and carried his busking roots into a staple of the show where the others left the stage and he played an awe-inspiring guitar instrumental solo, Ocean. I’ve seen him perform this a few times, I suspect he plays it at every show—quite honestly, it would be disappointing if he didn’t. A trademark of his musicianship, this single piece, on a single instrument, from a single man, built crescendo out of intricate, fast-picked, euphonic harmonies in numerous waves. Utilizing Open C tuning to, as Butler said, “Sound better than you actually are,” he began playing the guitar arm with both hands. Adding a drum beat with a low smack to the guitar body, his sharply filed fingernails twiddled a story over the strings. A mellifluous waking lullaby, set aflame and gently returned to uplifting precision. Quieter. Drawing ears closer to the heartbeat within sound. Building with intentional delight the song peaked in high range fire. The audience turned into a cauldron of popcorn simmered in oil; the first few people shot up out of their seats, seemingly by accident, unable to contain themselves any longer. He slowed and started again. Quieter. I didn’t know I was on the edge of my seat until I fell off. The intricacy turned to a fast, hard strum. Slowed to sweetly catch its breath, turned the heat up to eleven and built higher to burst and play layers of precision within an intense sound spasm. Having believed it was over, many times, the kernels began to explode in force. Arms flew in the air, bodies jolted out of their seats. Quickly, he softened again, then dove into dry strum complete desolation. Every kernel churned to white.

He coaxed the audience to participate in the last song by gently ridiculing our call and response, naming it excellently mediocre. Utilizing the opportunity to inspire freedom to live fully in the present, Butler asked that we, “Be here all the way now! Give it all you’ve got!” Resonating as freshly cracked seeds, voices streamed through the open air venue as if they’d lived behind walls until that moment.

He finished with a few encores, including Peaches and Cream with a reminder of how very lucky we are with the resources to buy tickets, and he, able to play music and live this life. Written after his first child was born, the song served as a reminder to return to gratitude with a better awareness of bourgeois suffering, and to, in Butler’s words, “Shut up and look at the glass as half full.” An inspiring show from many angles, I walked out of there glistening, with a hint of salt.

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