John Butler Trio to play Belly Up Aspen during Food & Wine Classic
The Aspen Times
If You Go …
What: John Butler Trio
Where: Belly Up Aspen
When: Friday, June 19, 9 p.m.
Take a base of roots, blues and folk. Add a twist of hip-hop, a dash of Indian, Celtic and bluegrass tradition. Drizzle with guitar-driven rock’n’roll. Heat nightly on stage in sold out theaters. Serve chilled. Such is the recipe for the John Butler Trio, the deliciously eclectic Australia-based outfit that plays a Food & Wine Classic weekend show at Belly Up Aspen on Friday.
“I don’t know what kind of band we actually are,” Butler said recently from a tour stop in Brisbane. “We’re definitely influenced by roots music and folk music. … But it’s a massive, wide landscape. That’s what we do. We make eclectic, non-labeled music.”
The band, with six studio albums and three live discs (including one recorded at Red Rocks Ampitheatre) in its catalogue, formed in 1998 in Freemantle, Australia, where Butler had been performing on the streets since the mid-1990s. As a busker, Butler wasn’t much for playing other people’s songs – regurgitating the Beatles and Bob Dylan for loose change. He wrote his own songs with intricate instrumentals that could stop passersby in their tracks.
That approach, commanding attention with the power of music, has stuck with Butler as he’s built a global following, touring with Dave Matthews Band in the early 2000s and growing a fervent fan base in the years that followed.
“I still go on-stage trying to hook people who I feel don’t realize they love the music,” he said. “That’s what you do on the street. Everybody has plans to be somewhere else – everybody is on their way to not see you.”
Moreso than any particular musical tradition, the busker’s drive to snap people out of their routine and get them to listen is what undergirds the John Butler Trio.
“With busking, it’s amazing just to get someone’s attention,” Butler said. “But then to hold their attention for 15 minutes you need to do something dynamic and then take them on a ride. There’s a tension and release. That’s stayed in my music since then. It’s about taking people on the journey. It’s not just about lyrics and guitar solos.”
As a teenager in western Australia, Butler was enthralled with the songwriting of Dolly Parton and Gillian Welch. His guitar style mashed up seemingly disparate traditions, from Hawaiian and Indian lap steel to American blues and flat-picking bluegrass to the anthemic high drama of classic rock. Unsurprisingly, Butler idolized Jimi Hendrix’s ability to render emotions with a guitar (though he never learned a Hendrix song or tried to copy his style, instead writing his own material from the jump). His songs range from feel-good folk (“Better Than”) to gritty blues (“Livin’ in the City”) to lengthy, classically influence instrumentals (“Ocean”). His vocals have a rare dynamism to them – he can do earnest folk singing, can wail on up-tempo rockers and he can lace his composition with syncopated, rap-like crescendos. The hip-hop influence, perhaps, is unavoidable for a musician who came of age in 1990s and recently turned 40.
“It’s the only thing I can dance to,” Butler said of hip-hop. “If I go to a club or a party and somebody drops some shit with a serious backbeat, that’s what will keep me on the dance floor all night. And that’s always informing my music.”
The band – rounded out these days by Byron Luiters on bass and Grant Gerathy on drums – is still playing a lot of songs from its most recent studio album, last year’s “Flesh & Blood,” but those songs have evolved over the last year-and-a-half on the road. And the band mixes in old and new – some very new. Butler and his trio are constantly writing new material – “If I was to finish all the music and lyrics there would be a couple albums’ worth,” he said – and will probably mix some new and unreleased material into the set this weekend in Aspen.
And while Butler is the driving force of the band, and has had a rotating rhythm section over the years, Luiters has been with him for the last six and Gerathy for the last two. Their influence was apparent on “Flesh & Blood,” for which Butler set aside days where he didn’t bring songs to the table that he’d already been working on. Two songs ended up on the album from those group writing sessions, “Blame it on Me” and “Devil Woman.”
“It used to be very much that I wrote the songs and brought them to the band,” he said. “I still do that a lot because I spend a lot of time away from the band and I can’t stop writing. … But there are some magical things that happen when you add the trio. It’s like, ‘Just add trio!’ It blossoms and becomes something else with Byron and Grant. … They’re an incredible resource of skill and production and songwriting and arranging and all these things that I can’t pull just from myself.”