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Aussie trio makes case as future for jam-bands

Bob Costa | Thursday, April 20, 2006

Today’s college students were too young to have been active members of the grunge scene or bear witness to the rise of Dave Matthews Band in its early years. Sure, some may wear a Blind Melon T-shirt, but it was either their older brother’s or mass-produced for sale at the local mall.

To be hip today is to look back for bands of substance like The Clash or Nirvana. Nickelback just isn’t cutting it. So, when a new band comes around that shuns commercialism, embraces activism and plays with a live energy that is usually only heard about in questionable tales from Woodstock, the current generation would do well to wake up from their decaffeinated cultural sleep and take notice.

This past Saturday, one of Australia’s top roots rock bands played an epic two-hour concert at the Vic Theatre on Chicago’s north side. Although multi-platinum stars in the land down under, the John Butler Trio has only recently begun to develop a large grassroots following stateside. The trio, led by dreadlocked guitarist John Butler, has opened for the Dave Matthews Band and played at the Bonnaroo festival. The band’s American studio debut, “Sunrise Over Sea,” was released in 2004. They also just released a double-CD live album cut from their recent concert in Switzerland entitled “Live at St. Gallen.” Both albums have slowly begun to sell well as word of mouth about this (uniquely) unpretentious jam band has built online and around the live concert scene.

Don’t be fooled by the jam band label though, since after last Saturday’s show at the Vic, it is clear that fans of Jack Johnson or Phish could find a home in the music of the John Butler Trio. The concert was more about raw emotion in many instrumental forms instead of the normal trippy guitar solos that usually permeate this era’s myriad of Dead-lite bands. Butler demonstrated his keen ability to conjure pain and elation during his performance. From the lush string arrangements of “What You Want,” which was featured on HBO earlier this spring, to the bouncy reggae-folk rhythms of “Zebra,” it became clear by the encore that the John Butler Trio doesn’t easily fit into any genre.

For “Peaches and Cream,” a bittersweet acoustic melody from “Sunrise Over Sea,” Butler began the song solo with just his acoustic guitar and one old-school microphone that looked like he borrowed it from Larry King’s desk. Butler asked the audience to be silent for the song since he wanted to play it sans amplification. After a few hilarious moments of buzzed hippies yelling “Shhhh!” to their friends, Butler began to slowly strum the quiet tune, which has become a minor hit on public and independent radio. Butler began his career playing on the streets of Fremantle, Australia, and the sing-a-long of the simple chorus, “All I know is / All I know is / I love you / Yes, I love you,” was quite striking since many in the audience did not know the lyrics when he began playing – but by its conclusion, they were singing along like they were in a bar and the Beatles’ “Yesterday” came over the jukebox.

Butler’s infectious roots vibe and the sincerity of his music made everyone, even one security guard standing by the bar, sing those simple lines with Butler over and over until everyone involved felt like they had reached some sort of musical high. Butler has the undoubtedly rare ability to keep his audience’s attention, even if this show was their first encounter with the artist. What makes his playing different is that instead of listening for cued riffs from the hit single, Butler’s crowds stare intensely at the unique eleven-string in the rocker’s hands as he searches for all sorts of sounds coming from the steel strings and the well-trod pedals at his feet.

The Vic concert’s highlight was Butler’s solo instrumental, “Ocean.” He jammed into crescendo after crescendo, prodding the audience into an eclectic frenzy where some were screaming in elation and others just grooved silently with their significant other. Butler told the audience that he wrote the song ten years ago, and that every time he played it, it changed in its tone and length. This was intriguing, since it’s rare to see a jam band that looks so much into itself for inspiration. Many guitarists like Trey Anastasio stare like excited puppies looking for audience approval when they jam. Butler sits still and carves songs out of his soul. Every pick of his guitar is distinct and he rushes nothing. For the encore, the stellar opening act and fellow Aussie Jeff Lang took the stage to make the John Butler Trio a quartet.

Instead of trying to be cool and hip with a Stones shirt or Chomsky book next to a pile of Weezer albums, go check out the John Butler Trio. Forget Phish. Think the future of jam bands that are unpretentious and innovative. This guy could, just maybe, be the next Marley.