Dreadlocks and ‘Toxic’ Covers: An Evening With the John Butler Tr

On May 14, the John Butler Trio headlined a sold-out show at the Troubadour in West Hollywood, in support of its recent release, ‘Sunrise Over Sea,’ with opener and San Diegan newcomer Tristan Prettyman.
The crowd did not come to full form until JBT hit the stage, an up-and-coming band whose fan base in Los Angeles is at least quite strong and could recently be seen on ‘The Late Show with David Letterman’ as well as the ‘Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson.’ However, supporting act Prettyman had a modest but surely appreciative audience.
The little known singer/songwriter Prettyman deserved a packed house, however, playing a wonderfully intimate set, which featured an hour’s worth of melodic acoustic songs, deeply soulful while remaining light and pretty, much in the vein of Ani DiFranco.
As a sucker for beautiful girls with even more beautiful voices, every heterosexual male in the audience, including myself, could not look away from Prettyman. A surprising delight for the evening, the young singer had a serious knack for drawing in her audience with only her voice and her acoustic guitar.
Alas, there is only one thing that can break the longing stare: hunger. I realized I hadn’t eaten all day and made my way to the well-hidden grill behind the bar. The lazy-eyed short order cook angrily served me an overpriced burger and fries. Halfway through destroying one of the most delicious meals I’ve had in a while, Prettyman finished her set with a cover of Britney Spears’ ‘Toxic,’ which, you have to admit is really a great song sung by a terrible artist. Prettyman’s rendition was perfect, bringing everything to the song that I have always known it deserves, such as grace and soul. I thought I would die happy, all before the headliner.
As Prettyman left the stage, the venue was almost packed and ready for the main act. The bar was heavily attended (and the grill underestimated) as more and more fans rushed in for the evening’s awaited arrival of JBT.
Like JBT’s music, the crowd at the Troubadour was hard to characterize. I have found, however, in my concert-going experience, an easy way to break down any concert scene, no matter how confusing. To understand any crowd, just look at the haircuts of the most enthusiastic followers: they tell all. For example, at this show, the venue was attended by a very mixed crowd; the most excited fans were white guys in their mid-20s with shaved heads and a wide range of jam-band fans with long thick dreadlocks. That sums it up, I think: crew cuts and dreadlocks.
As John Butler took the his seat on stage, all factions of the enthusiastic crowd made their appreciation heard. Butler, well-dressed with a worthy head of dreadlocks himself, quietly introduced himself and the band.
Butler, who was born in the United States but grew up in Australia and now has residence in both places, praised his current bassist and drummer, Shannon Birchell and Michael Barker, as ‘brothers.’ The trio has undergone many changes over the years for different reasons, though the current lineup seems to be solid, on a musical level, at least.
The Trio opened with the droning slow song, ‘Born to Ramble,’ showcasing the band’s more experimental side, but foreshadowing elements that would drive the entire set, such as the three-part pitch-perfect harmonies.
The band exploded into their second song, the more upbeat ‘Company Sin.’ At this point the crowd was in full force, visibly and vocally behind the three confident musicians.
The rest of JBT’s set featured old and new favorites, each unique and powerful in their own right. There was not one song that dragged in the smooth, energetic set, with each one delivering more than the next.
John Butler’s unique voice, smooth and soulful at times while quick and erratic at others, translated well in a live setting. As guitar player, he is undeniably impressive, switching between acoustic guitar, banjo and the unique-sounding slide guitar, which he plays on an acoustic laid horizontally on his lap. I could easily list a number of destructive adjectives to describe his ability as a guitarist (rips, slays, destroys, murders), but his solos and guitar lines are subtle at times, explosive at others and always interesting and appropriate.
Barker and Birchell are also equally impressive, truly fulfilling the function of a powerful and talented trio.
In terms of a specific genre, JBT is hard to pin down in words, which, for a band, is always good in the long run. Their music touches on rock, folk, country and experimental. They are also apparently associated with ‘jam rock,’ recently sharing the cover of Relix magazine with Trey Anastasio of former jam powerhouse Fish.
As a live band JBT is truly entertaining, even for those who may not think that this is their type of music. None of this music comprehension and genre finger-pointing even becomes a thought in their live setting.
Personally, by the end of their set, I looked around at the crowd of screaming bald white dudes and dreadlocked dancers and felt unexpectedly excited about these Aussies. They are definitely the type of band that, in a live setting at least, easily convert new followers coming from any type of music.
JBT will perform live on ‘The Jimmy Kimmel Show’ June 14.