May 17th marked a rare treat for Philadelphians as they were graced with the presence of John Butler, Shannon Birchall, and Michael Barker who form the John Butler Trio. Sold out audiences proudly entered, as fans that had not purchased their own waited on the sidelines in hopes for a spare ticket. Inside the Theatre of the Living Arts, there awaited a typical gaggle of live music fans; older wanderers at the bar, high school and college kids up front, and drunk coworkers in the bathroom. Amazed at the sheer magnitude of friends and fans filling the venue, I was anxious to see this band I had come across only a few weeks earlier.
Some, I would learn, had heard about the hype from a friend, others from college radio. One attendee had witnessed a performance by the trio on stage at Jazz Fest in New Orleans a few years earlier. With todayâ€šÃ„Ã´s radio blaring synthesized pop and rock, while MTV plasters the accompanying images, how did so many people catch on to the JBT craze so quickly? I couldnâ€šÃ„Ã´t figure out how an entire room filled with people, as well as stragglers on the outside, had fallen so in love with John Butler Trio.
As far as Top 40, JBT seems most reminiscent of Ben Harper; unique instrumentation, complex rhythm, and sentimental lyrics. A few hours prior to the show I had an opportunity to talk with John Butler. Sitting in the green room, staring at the pineapple and tea that had obviously been tacked onto the rider, John Butler offers me a water as we begin to talk about his rise to stardom, his values, and of course his music. â€šÃ„ÃºBenâ€šÃ„Ã´s a great player. When I see him or hear him heâ€šÃ„Ã´s very inspirational,â€šÃ„Ã¹ says John. Bob Marley, the Beastie Boys, Beck, and The Who were also mentioned as inspirations. â€šÃ„ÃºMy biggest influence behind all of those players is Jeff Lang. Ya know heâ€šÃ„Ã´s a great slide player.â€šÃ„Ã¹ Butler also mentions his influences in other more surprising arenas. â€šÃ„ÃºAlways people inspire me. People I donâ€šÃ„Ã´t even know. It might even be just a Celtic â€šÃ„Ã¬ a Celtic violin on a phone or an advertisement for Riverdance, or something, that might inspire me.â€šÃ„Ã¹
Butlerâ€šÃ„Ã´s variety in inspirations has fueled a musical success. In just 2004, Butler achieved gold status in February for â€šÃ„ÃºZebra,â€šÃ„Ã¹ Sunrise Over Sea debuted at number one in March on the Australian Record Industry Association chart, â€šÃ„ÃºZebraâ€šÃ„Ã¹ won song of the year at the Australasian Performing Right Association Awards in May, in August Sunrise Over Sea achieved triple Platinum status, and in October at the Australian Record Industry Association Awards ceremony, Butler won Best Independent Release, Best Blues and Roots Album, and Best Male Artist, beating out Jet. When asked what he was most proud of, Butler let his more personal achievements shine first.
â€šÃ„ÃºIâ€šÃ„Ã´m most proud of the amount of money weâ€šÃ„Ã´ve raised towards environmental groups [and] the grant that we just started.â€šÃ„Ã¹ The grant that Butler is referring to is called â€šÃ„ÃºThe JB Seed.â€šÃ„Ã¹ Taken from the programâ€šÃ„Ã´s website, www.thejbseed.com, â€šÃ„ÃºThe JB seed, in its formative year, is a programme that intends to offer support to develop genuine artistic expression. The categories we have chosen are designed to explore and encourage the social, cultural and artistic diversity that exists in Australian society. We intend to create an open-minded â€šÃ„Ã²artist-friendlyâ€šÃ„Ã´ grant programme that focuses on positive outcomes.â€šÃ„Ã¹
Butler proceeds to discuss his achievements unrelated to fame. â€šÃ„ÃºIâ€šÃ„Ã´m really proud of what people have come back to me and said â€šÃ„Ã²youâ€šÃ„Ã´ve really â€šÃ„Ã¬ youâ€šÃ„Ã´ve really been there for me,â€šÃ„Ã´ or â€šÃ„Ã²you really helped me through a tough time.â€šÃ„Ã´ Those are the things Iâ€šÃ„Ã´m really most proud of.â€šÃ„Ã¹
Finishing off the topic of achievements, Butler finally talks about the past yearâ€šÃ„Ã´s accomplishments. â€šÃ„ÃºThere are other things that are a little bit more, just, achievement/ego based, like the most success weâ€šÃ„Ã´ve had as an independent act from Australia.â€šÃ„Ã¹ Butler also mentions his win for Best Song Of The Year, which was the first time in history the award was given to a self-published singer-songwriter. â€šÃ„ÃºIâ€šÃ„Ã´m proud of all those things but mainly the effect that weâ€šÃ„Ã´ve had on people and had on the environment. And the album.â€šÃ„Ã¹ John pauses for a moment and continues, â€šÃ„ÃºI really love the album. Itâ€šÃ„Ã´s the first one Iâ€šÃ„Ã´ve been completely happy with.â€šÃ„Ã¹
In regard to the album, Butler delves into the different genres showcased on Sunrise Over Sea. â€šÃ„ÃºThere are lots of different styles on the album. I like different styles of music. And I tend to write lots of different styles of music. I am very much roots and groove oriented.â€šÃ„Ã¹ The first single off the album, â€šÃ„ÃºZebra,â€šÃ„Ã¹ is a classic example of the groove Butler is discussing. With an easy-going pace and upbeat lyrics, itâ€šÃ„Ã´s a song sure to entertain. The twangy instrumentation featured in â€šÃ„ÃºTreat Yo Mama,â€šÃ„Ã¹ a song dedicated to Mother Nature, provides an entirely different taste. â€šÃ„ÃºIf a song arises and comes up and wants a life of itâ€šÃ„Ã´s own â€šÃ„Ã¬ then Iâ€šÃ„Ã´m happy to give it a life.â€šÃ„Ã¹ With a much slower, sentimental pace, â€šÃ„ÃºWhat You Wantâ€šÃ„Ã¹ features strings backing the trio. â€šÃ„Ãºâ€šÃ„Ã´What You Wantâ€šÃ„Ã´ was about giving people a taste,â€šÃ„Ã¹ to which he added, â€šÃ„Ãºitâ€šÃ„Ã´s just what I heard when I wrote the song. This song wants strings.â€šÃ„Ã¹ Butler elaborates, â€šÃ„Ãºthatâ€šÃ„Ã´s what the song wanted and I just did my best to get out what I heard in my head and my heart.â€šÃ„Ã¹
Before leaving, Butler shared what he was most looking forward to. â€šÃ„ÃºIâ€šÃ„Ã´m looking forward to this group tonight. I mean thatâ€šÃ„Ã´s why Iâ€šÃ„Ã´m on the road nine months out of the year and away from my family for all the time for one reason. Because I love music.â€šÃ„Ã¹ John continues, â€šÃ„ÃºI love playing music. I just look forward to a good group. Ya know? An intimate group.â€šÃ„Ã¹ He proceeds, â€šÃ„ÃºIâ€šÃ„Ã´m looking for a connection. Iâ€šÃ„Ã´m looking for something real,â€šÃ„Ã¹ and â€šÃ„ÃºIâ€šÃ„Ã´m looking for something thatâ€šÃ„Ã´s really deep and satisfying and intimate and passionate, ya know?â€šÃ„Ã¹ Lingering, he goes on, â€šÃ„Ãºitâ€šÃ„Ã´s a real give and take between the audience and the band. The band is not just trying to take as much as they can from the audience. And neither is the audience. The audience isnâ€šÃ„Ã´t trying to take from me.â€šÃ„Ã¹ In determining a venue size, John says, â€šÃ„ÃºI donâ€šÃ„Ã´t really care where it is, ya know? Whether itâ€šÃ„Ã´s in an office, a magazine staff, or if itâ€šÃ„Ã´s in front of fifty thousand people.â€šÃ„Ã¹
The concert that followed only hours later felt like an intimate engagement rather than the reality of a sold out crowd. While Butler fans greeted and supported Tristan Prettyman, opener to JBT, the anxiety of what was to follow was palpable. The bars and restrooms cleared out while the masses engulfed the stage as the trio made their first appearance to the audience: John sitting on the left, drummer Michael Barker in the middle, and upright bassist Shannon Birchall, on the right. â€šÃ„ÃºWeâ€šÃ„Ã´re gonna start out slow and see where this goes,â€šÃ„Ã¹ John said. And start slow it did, with an atmospheric intro to â€šÃ„ÃºBound To Ramble.â€šÃ„Ã¹
â€šÃ„ÃºPeaches and Creamâ€šÃ„Ã¹ provided an opportunity for John Butler to become intimate with the audience. A personal, and beautiful song about his daughter, Banjo, made way for the give and take Butler had spoken so highly of earlier. The highlight of the evening, by far, was the version of â€šÃ„ÃºBettermanâ€šÃ„Ã¹ which led to aforementioned Bob Marleyâ€šÃ„Ã´s â€šÃ„ÃºSlave Driverâ€šÃ„Ã¹ and â€šÃ„ÃºGet Up. Stand Up.â€šÃ„Ã¹ Bassist Shannon Birchall tore into his solo, while drummer Michael Barker played multiple reggae beats.
The afternoon and evening spent with John Butler provided an answer to why John Butler Trio is making such an impact on music, and why they acquired so many devoted fans in a short period of time. Butler strives to make a connection to each one of his fans. He succeeds in musicality alone, but enraptures his audience with charm and humbleness.
All photos by Jeanette Honig