A friend once described an evening watching The John Butler Trio at a vineyard in Australia as one of the best nights of his life! Copious amounts of sizzling BBQ were washed down with lashings of the most amazing wine, but all this was just an added bonus to what was a stirring evening of musical entertainment from The John Butler Trio. This was over a decade ago and recent albums haven’t been quite as consistent as impressive earlier releases, but Butler has just released a new album called Home full of personal introspection along with an enhanced sonic approach, so would this evening in a wet and windy Manchester stand up to my friend’s experience that night in Australia?
‘Tahitian Blue’ opens proceedings in sanguine fashion. It’s the opening track from Home and it is perhaps a deceptive one; the song doesn’t possess the more contemplative musings of much of the new album, instead delivering a mellow campfire aesthetic presented with an appreciative smile by Butler. The crunching ‘Wade in the Water’ follows. It’s an earthy, deliberate number and Butler is clearly enjoying the leisurely, rootsy tones generated by his slide guitar and the pounding percussion which drive the song forward.
Earlier albums demonstrated a penchant for the epic and ‘Betterman’ became the Australian’s magnum opus in 2001. There’s a huge roar of appreciation therefore when the intro to this spectacular track is recognised by the partisan crowd. The tones and timbre that Butler can achieve on an acoustic guitar are truly stunning; disregarding the normally fragile properties of the instrument, Butler generates a stunning range of textures and emotions and the song’s crunching solo is a tour de force which takes on multiple personalities before barrelling towards its more sombre conclusion, aided by evocative harmonies and the wonderfully apt church organs, which sound impressive in this old Wesleyan chapel in the centre of Manchester.
2007’s Grand National was one of Butler’s more mercurial records but ‘Better Than’ is definitely one of its more impactful moments and it’s jaunty, banjo-led melody certainly proves to be a highlight tonight. So far then, the more meditative demeanour of the new album hasn’t really emerged. Instead, what we’ve been treated to has generally been of a warm and sunny disposition. ‘Just Call’ maintains this ambience and is introduced as an ode to his wife whom he met on an epic tour across Australia at the start of his career.
‘Faith’ initially slows proceedings down but we’re constantly witness to impressive turns of pace and this song’s more gentle acoustic tones swell impressively. Although there is an initial sense of foreboding about the track, its aura evolves and Butler’s hope is encapsulated by the stunning acoustic solo which preempts the acquiescence at its conclusion. There is an authentic integrity about the whole evening and when Butler introduces one song with a long diatribe about the impact of fracking, it’s greeted by long applause. Friends of the Earth have even been invited to the show and he requests that we visit their table to find out what we can do to halt this dangerous practice. This earthy sensibility is never more passionately demonstrated than on the solo instrumental ‘Ocean’. The rest of the band depart and Butler sits with a twelve string acoustic guitar, slowly assembling an undulating expression of kinship that starts gently before swelling dramatically, punctuated by brief, suspenseful interludes prompting the crowd to hold their breath in anticipation before the next phase of the track emerges. The crowd are enthralled, giving cheers of delight as the composition ebbs and flows before sweeping towards its majestical conclusion. Clocking in at just under fifteen minutes long, we’re left in awe at its scale and complexity; we’ve all just witnessed something very rare and beautiful and the comedown is quite jarring. Swapping the twelve-string for a ukulele, we get the reggae-inspired beach lullaby ‘Groovin’ Slowly’. The turn of pace and tone works though, demonstrating Butler’s ability to musically turn on a dime.
His introduction to ‘Home’ reinforces the more pensive themes of the new record and this is demonstrated by the clattering, earth-shaking percussion and unnerving synth tones which coarse through this more sombre song. As Butler sings ‘I can’t find my direction and I’m losing connection’, it’s the first time we really see a chink in the armour of this most gracious of performers. The good times are never far away though and the final track of the encore, ‘Zebra’, takes us back to the hip hop infused roots of the brilliant Sunrise Over Sea. The crowd are bouncing, capping off a glorious return for the man from Fremantle.