A hot and sunny Saturday was the perfect way to start two days of John Butler Trio lovin’ at the Melbourne Zoo Twilights. Local folk three-piece Tinpan Orange got the evening underway with a quiet but impressive set of originals, ranging from ballads to quirky folk-pop anthems.
Frontwoman Emily Lubitz, her brother Jesse Lubitz and violinist/guitarist Alex Burkoy looked relaxed introducing new songs from their forthcoming album Love Is A Dog, including the slow-burning groovy new single ‘Rich Man’. Emily’s whimsical storytelling was best heard on ‘Barcelona’, where she fell asleep on the beach, “stole my stuff they took my camera” and Jesse’s stomp-box action got heads bopping.
Emily’s awkward in-between song banter was a distant memory the moment she sung, and her lilting, slightly croaky sing-song manner had a lullaby effect over the front row fans. There was an ode to getting older (‘Birdy’), an ode to an ex-lover (‘Like Snow’) and an ode to the animals surrounding the performance (‘Leopards’).
The crowd was at capacity by the time 8pm came around, and the hot and bothered were looking forward to the beating sun going down just as much as they were looking forward to the band coming out. Sporting a curly bob instead of his once iconic dreadlocks, the effortlessly cool John Butler swiftly and casually led the roots and jam threesome to the stage, strapping on his trademark Maton 11-string acoustic and launching into a riff. A smiley Byron Luiters took his place on the right of stage on bass behind a keyboard, whilst drummer Grant Gerathy sat raised at the back (having taken over from Butler’s brother-in-law Nicky Bomba in 2013).
Butler first off acknowledged the traditional owners of the land, a political and social awareness that he weaved briefly in and out of his set as per usual. From the moment he opened his mouth it was like listening to the record – that reggae tinged rhythmic rhyme paired with acoustic guitar, bass beats and a consistent funky drum.
The hits peppered a set of old and new goodies, with sing-a-long numbers ‘Used to Get High’ and ‘Better Than’ bookending most recent album Flesh & Blood’s fan favourites ‘Blame It On Me’, the relatable verses of ‘Living in the City’ (“It’s just shit, shower, shave just make it to the station / Waiting for the train, goddamn train late again”) and the much more sensitive ‘How You Sleep at Night’. Butler rather affably admitted to being a bit of a ranter and raver on stage and promised to tone it down for the night, which give him his due, he definitely did. He also confessed it was partly due to his passionate nature and having attention deficit disorder – an admission that was cut short when he got distracted as a light plane flew over. Oh, the irony.
The highlight of the night came in the form of a solo acoustic instrumental that, I kid you not, went for 15 minutes. The song was ‘Ocean’, an experimentation that started life out over 10 years ago with a Celtic vibe influenced by Butler’s mixed Anglo heritage, and over time, it had morphed into a lengthy but immersive exploration odyssey into anything and everything. Never before at a gig have I seen so many people sit in silence completely captivated by an instrumental. Butler’s fingers danced a sporadic rhythm across his 11-string fretboard, effortlessly shifting tone and speed from loud and swelling bar chords to delicate melodies.
Not a bored yawn or a glance at a watch was seen in the crowd – he had us completely and utterly spellbound. Although Butler has been a much-loved household name for so long, it was clear in this intimate moment that his abilities as a live artist had still been grossly overlooked. This was a consummate performer who knew how to entertain and surprise every time, and singing wasn’t even required. It was an added bonus. A standing ovation followed naturally, and mid-bow, the two in the trio returned to their instruments for a funky finale.
The fun and ferocious ‘Don’t Wanna See Your Face’ got everyone in the mood for a bit of collective venting, whilst the timeless classic ‘Zebra’ (written 12 years ago and appropriately titled after a Zoo animal) had everyone mumbling the satisfyingly nonsensical chorus in fervent fashion. The encore was apt, ‘Funky Tonight’, which was exactly how the night unfolded. The John Butler Trio left the stage just as they’d entered – quick and without a fuss – but boy had they made an impression whilst they were there.