The Butler Trio plays Aspen’s Belly Up on Thursday and Friday
August 16, 2013
When John Butler hit the streets of Freemantle, in western Australia, as a 21-year-old busker, he wondered how he was going to get the attention of passersby. The streets were crowded with performers, most of whom resorted to the same tactic to build a crowd: sing a bunch of familiar songs. Butler wanted no part of playing the same tunes everyone else did, and went with a different approach.
"The best buskers I saw were the ones playing instrumentals," Butler said. Butler came up with his own guitar style, a mix of Indian slide guitar, Celtic sounds and blues. "It caught people's attention."
Butler's idea at the time was to be a gypsy-like musician, traveling the country with his guitar. But with his unique style and accomplished technique, he wasn't long for the streets. First it was other musicians inviting him to play with them at club gigs. In 1999, a few years after he began busking, the Waifs, a Melbourne folk-rock band who would go on to tour with Bob Dylan, invited Butler to tour with them and open the shows as a solo act. At the 2000 East Coast Blues & Roots Music Festival, near Brisbane, the John Butler Trio, which had Butler flanked with bass and drums, played two gigs. The first drew 50 people; the second, in a fierce rainstorm, drew 3,000. The following year, the John Butler Trio released "Three," which earned several Australian music awards and led to a tour of the U.S. that had the threesome opening for the Dave Matthews Band and John Mayer, and making appearances at the Bonnaroo and South by Southwest festivals. A live album, "Living 2001-2002," released in 2003, went platinum.
That was more than enough to convince Butler to abandon his early plan to be a street performer (and his even earlier ambition to be an art teacher). "Once I realized what I was doing, I didn't put any limits on it," Butler said from a tour stop in Jackson Hole, Wyo. "Music is contributing to bettering the world. When you're committed to something like that, you don't put any boundaries on it."
Moving from the street corner to the arena stage might not be the greatest shift in Butler's career. Where he focused on his guitar technique and instrumental tunes early on, he has shifted his perspective drastically to focus on songs.
"Now I'm a firm believer in the song," he said. "The song can do anything. The song is where it's at. The song has to stand up. We do what we have to for the song."
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Butler has big intentions for those songs. He is a believer that music is an essential tool for expanded consciousness.
"I think the best music is not anybody's — it's divine," he said. "When it's played well, the musicians are a conduit for something bigger, something universal. The longer I do this, the more I realize I'm just there, downloading that spirit into the room to raise the frequency, raise the vibration."
Butler has a varied list of significant influences, from the Beatles and Bob Marley to Celtic fiddlers and the Indian slide guitarist Debashish Bhattacharya. He also cites such socially provocative groups as NWA and Rage Against the Machine as influences, though Butler has moved away from the political-minded lyrics of his earlier music.
"It used to be more about corrupt politicians and what's happening to the environment," Butler said. "But life is a little deeper than that. The spirit if where it's at. And you can't put that into words. You just try to put out the energy."
The most recent studio album by the John Butler Trio, "April Uprising," dates back to 2010. The title comes from a significant political event in 1876 in Bulgaria, where Butler traces his ancestry. But more recently, Butler released the concert recording, "Live at Red Rocks," from a June, 2010 concert near Denver.
So Butler has come close to Aspen, but never made it here. That absence ends with a two-night stand, Thursday and Friday, at Belly Up.
"It's a big world," Butler explained. "America's a massive country."
John Butler Trio with Zach Heckendorf opening
Tonight and Friday at 9
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