I arrived at the Malkin Bowl right as the sun was setting, slowly washing away the day and shrouding Stanley Park in a cloak of darkness. Gone for the day, as the sun was, the venue stood alone in the night as the final burning ember of what was once a roaring, crackling fire. My pals and I arrived in a fleet of Yellow Cabs and were moved quickly through a Soviet bread-line of hippies, distinguished gentlemen and ladies, children, and little else in between.
In contrast to our easy passage, The John Butler Trio faced more prohibitive circumstances en-route to the Malkin Bowl. JBT and fam were temporarily stranded on the old country roads of Northern Washington: thumbs to the side, cell-phones outstretched to the sky (an offering to a higher power for bars), their curbed and broken-down tour bus behind them and the Canadian/American border looming ahead. Okay, maybe that’s a slightly dramatized portrait, but the truth in it serves as an explanation for the Trio’s delayed arrival.
When the gang got going it was a cut past eight and we were ready for what they brought. The crowd was still roused from entry and the opening act, Nattali Rize, whose time on stage had the lifespan of a burning match, and we met the Trio’s initial energy with emphatic applause right off the bat. John Butler (lead, vocals) and Byron Luiters (bass) were joined by ex-member Nicky Bomba, who was filling in for Grant Gerathy on drums. Bomba, who left the band in 2013 to focus on his other projects, clearly hadn’t missed a beat since his departure, providing crisp and energetic drumming behind Mr.John Butler.
Butler’s most endearing quality as a musician is his willingness to keep things simple. His lyrics are simple, his concepts are simple, and he seems to actively work to bring things from the world of High-Concept to Low-Concept (e.x, substituting term “ancestors” with “the old people”). In doing so, Butler reaches a wider audience – and avoids the pressure-trap of pretension that many people who are more talented than they are deep tend to fall into. One such example is on their 2001 release, Betterman, in which Butler croons: “You deserve everything/And I got nothing so leave me”. In very few words, and with a very simple sentiment, Butler explores the incompatible interplay of self-loathing and love for another. There have been many heavy-handed songs written on that topic, so Butler’s ability to keep things light was particularly refreshing.
Amongst the highlights of the show included an extended version of “Revolution” – a prayer, Butler said, dedicated to all those at war. Unlike Ryan Howard’s similarly worded toast (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rIAWmR3Zlvk), Butler’s was well received by his audience. Indeed, the night was something of an unconditional love-in: Butler even dedicated the opposite of his song, Don’t Wanna See Your Face, in which he belts out: “You think I love you/You think I need you/Damn no, get out the door”. See? I told you Butler is great at communicating his ideas in a simple manner.
Of course, no John Butler Trio concert would be complete without a 12-minute rendition of Ocean. The Trio jammed and dazzled their way through the rambling, moody tune. While it doesn’t hold a candle to the real-life live thing, here’s a beautiful rendition of the track:
The most personable moment of the show came with Butler alone, on-stage for the encore. A little boy named Ethan handed Butler a hand-crafted wood-carved string instrument, which he and his father had crafted especially for Butler. Butler was clearly very touched as he strummed along on the little instrument and sang “I love Ethan,” in a high-pitched, elvish voice. He then proceeded to play “Losing You,” messing up the same part twice before he finally had the wherewithal to just move on and join the audience in laughter. And why not? The truth is, nobody cared at that point. We came to feel good, have fun, and listen to beautiful music. Mission accomplished, John Butler Trio.