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John Butler Trio

John Butler Trio

2/15/10 Performance at Lincoln Hall | Chicago, IL

Contributing Writer/Photographer : Thomas Fennell IV

Video Compliments of pjvedder2 at YouTube.com.

First off, the opening act—Tim Brantley.  Brantley took the stage and immediately had the crowd won over, bringing a rock & roll mix of small-town charm and big city attitude to a crowd that couldn’t have been more receptive.

Carrying the opening act’s burden of vying for a distracted crowd’s attention while they’ve got the headliner on the brain, Tim kept continual banter through joking, pointing out just how hard it is to laugh and play the harmonica at the same time. “Try and whistle while you’re laughing. See?” The best opening acts are the ones where you get the feeling the headlining band really digs what they do, and wants them to be a part of the tour.  This was a night like that.  Brantley’s style wasn’t exactly like that of the John Butler Trio, but it fit well for the fans.

John came out and set the tone for the night straight away, requesting our participation as he thanked ‘those who once inhabited this land, making it known that we [audience] came in peace and love, wishing to gather so we could celebrate our time together’.

The band’s kick off lit up the crowd, figuratively for now. Everyone in the first few rows had already taken turns sliding up to the front of the stage and snapping camera-phone shots of the neatly-typed setlists, no doubt to share with friends further back and those not able to attend.  Some surprises lost, but most of the comments I overheard were squeals and cheers of joy that they’re favorite tracks would be making an appearance.

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The set started strong.  The guys seeming to get their bearings instrumentally and picking up the groove of the room quickly.  “Used to get high” helped to spark the audience, who sent abundant smoke signals into the venue, showing their appreciation.  John rocked that acoustic 12-string guitar like nobody else can, combining wild finger-picking technique with bluesy riffs and punchy vocals.

On the request of a young lady in the front row, John promised early in the set that they’ll play “Daniella” sometime during the night; a track not appearing on the setlist we’ve all become familiar with, but a promising gesture that the trio is willing to go with the flow and ready to ride the energy the audience brought to share.  She wouldn’t be let down.

Later on as bassist Byron Luiters (who plays a mean didgeridoo) and drummer & percussionist Nicky Bomba took a break, John was left solo on stage.  As the lights came down he dialed up the finger picking.  The already friendly crowd was transfixed.  They’d coexisted all night, waiting for moments like this.  Looking back into the crowd, I was struck by the pattern of wide-eyed fans spread out so each could grab a view of John’s wild techniques.  His hands not only work up and down the neck of the guitar but frequently switch positions, letting him pick the ‘short’ side of the string and get a brand new set of sounds from his instrument.

Fancy hands wasn’t the only trick up John’s sleeve, more than once he reached for a small powered tool when held to a string, made a sound like a bow being drawn across the guitar.  Combined with distortion and a heady stack of amplifiers, it brought another tone all his own.

The set included a few new cuts from his upcoming record April Uprising like “Revolution” (Complete with some serious discussion of just what it means to witness a revolution) and “Johnny’s Gone,” a ‘tribute’ of sorts to a corrupt former Australian Prime Minister.  Fan-favorite tracks from albums new and old were mixed in, from “Zebra” and “Ocean” and to the more recent “Better Than” and “Funky Tonight.”

Even on a snowy Monday night, the crowd was willing to go anywhere John and the band led in a room that stayed hot, packed and friendly.  Something about the vibe in the room had toes and tails of all ages tappin’ and waggin’.  It was with great satisfaction the crowd finally went on their way, fueled by what the band brought to share.  “It’s been too long,” John had said earlier in the set, mentioning just how long it’d been since the band was in Chicago. Watching fans smiling, leaving the club, I could tell they were already longing for the next time the guys come through town.