Love lights up the night with John Butler Trio


John Butler Trio
Madison Theatre
Covington, KY
August 7, 2011

In the shadow of downtown Cincinnati, across the dark waters of the Ohio, the John Butler Trio emitted enough energy to brighten the dark Blue Chip City night.

Hailing from Australia, Butler and his band brought — as they are known to do — a distinct measure of their homeland (Australia) to the songs and a unique Aussie feel to the show as a whole. Beyond the obvious didgeridoo tune, there were turns of phrase and sound that was worldly yet honest in its island dialect. INXS had it, Midnight Oil has it, and even Men at Work has it. But it is particularly impressive that a player of Butler’s skill and dexterity sublimates his passionate style to write simple and catchier pieces.

Butler has proved equally at home on four and five string Banjos, lap Steel, six and twelve string guitars and is a heartfelt vocalist to boot. One could mama_kin1.jpgeasily understand if he wrote fiery guitar song after fiery guitar song to shake the rafters.  And make no doubt, he can and does, as on this night, take regular forays into guitar hero-dom. But with a sly mind and a deft lyrical twinkle, he seems to be more concerned with making you think and care as opposed to making you melt.

Opening act, Mama Kin shared a much tighter connection to their headliners than a normal band, as lead singer Danielle Caruana has been married for more than a decade to John Butler. This is no vanity project however, as she had always written songs and had been in bands, as she said “off and on for years,” though she did take a short break from the stage to stay at home with the couple’s two children and focus on The Seed, an arts and music grant program in their homeland. With their children entering more manageable ages, she decided to form a band and record her first long full record.

Her accent is more pronounced than her husbands, and the music is all the more marked as a product of its origins for it.

A bawdy tune about pleasing her man showed a playful side to her writing, while some of her more sorrowful tunes such as “Tore my Heart Out” and “Bitter Tears” kept the large crowd that gathered at the foot of the stage near silent as they swayed to her recounted suffering… and the ovation she received had her tweeting her praise for the city and its crowd before the night’s festivities had even come to a close.

jb_1.jpgThe break between wife Danielle’s and husband John’s sets was filled with anticipation. These folks were rabid and the adulation was only deepened as a glimpse of Butler ignited the crowd a full 20 minutes before the start of his set.

The Madison Theater was already near capacity at the opening and the crowd continued to stream in. From just inside the doors to the front of the stage and all across the balcony, the river folks turned out to draw a mainline charge of positive thought and love from Butler and his side men.

Taking a brief moment to remind us to thank the aboriginal peoples of our own nation whose land we stand on, the show began with a bang. Not wanting to lose any of the momentum built by the opener, crowd favorite “I Used To Get High For A Living” was shot out like a warning across the bow, a declaration of intent to keep spirits uplifted and the mood upbeat.

Since his first foray into the international music scene nearly a decade ago, Butler has been identified as a force for artistic pop songs. “Zebra,” with its call-and-response touches of Harry Belafonte was used to great effect, and managed to pull off crowd participation without seeming shamelessly cheesy – a difficult task. But rather than seeming trite, the enthusiastic singing by the crowd matched the smiles in their own eyes as well as those of the three men on stage.

Drummer Nicky Bomba and bassist and didgeridoo player Byron Luiters were handpicked by Butler to compliment his sensibilities, and both played their roles perfectly in Cincinnati. Bomba’s bombastic drumming bordered on 70’s style hard rock thumping at times while Luiters cycled through standup and guitar bass that provided a solid if unremarkable spine to the sound. Above all this was Butler’s jangly, twangy array of instruments resting on high.

Taking a break from standing, Butler sat down to his the lap steel, but prior to playing, he spoke of some of the causes near to his heart: conservation, preservation, and other environmental issues. Shortly thereafter, he took an epic six minute solo jam, using chorus and delay effects to make each echoed phrase distortedly follow along behind him like an eager kid brother. Taking the piece to spiraling heights, he wowed the crowd and each pause seemed to cause the room to inhale as one… primed to fill any quiet moment with raucous cheering.

img_3472.jpgEvery song was accompanied by the crowd who sang word for word in unison, but in none of the tracks were they louder than in “Better Than,” one of his the Trio’s most known works.

As noted earlier in the evening by Mama Kin, the crowd was in fine form, and no moment was left uncelebrated. Bringing out his wife’s accompanists, the Trio swelled to quintet size for a few numbers including the closer,” Funky Tonight,” and “Picapart,” that served as encore.

“Funky Tonight” gave the band a chance to close out the main show with a flourish and “Picapart” brought the evening to a close, and in so doing, rounded out the career-spanning setlist.

With a live DVD and CD of his Red Rocks performance recently released that showcases his on stage mojo, there is no better time for the band to be out on the road displaying their skills to eager throngs of fans.  As the tour winds its way across the United States, awareness will be raised, songs will be played and, if the night in Cincy is any indication, love will light the way.