John Butler Trio packed out the Roundhouse tonight. They’ve previously packed out the Hammersmith Apollo. Packing out either of these London venues is no mean feat – particularly if, as seems to be the case, English music fans seem entirely unaware of who John Butler is, what his music is like and why they should be listening to it.
The easy explanation for this strange dichotomy comes in two parts. The first is that Australian-American Butler has, for quite a while now, been huge in Australia. He co-owns his own label and embodies the rootsy indie spirit inherent in so much of the music scene down under. His last album, Sunrise Over Sea, debuted at the top of the Australian charts – an unheard-of feat at the time. The second component of explaining his popularity in London is that the capital of Blighty happens to be Australia’s fifth largest city per head of population, and just about everyone who’s ever backpacked around Oz comes into contact with Butler’s music at some point.
Thus it was that an Australia Day atmosphere set in amid the bars and foodstalls of Camden’s snazziest venue, and Australian accents in the crowd were the order of the day. Butler’s appeal, on this evidence, still has a long way to go to cross cultures and entice the English indie market proper. But that’s their loss, as was immediately clear with the melodic and rhythmic appeal of his set’s opening number, Better Than.
The first track from new album Grand National presented Butler seated stage right, dredlocks tied back in a beehive, tickling away at his guitar. Shannon Birchall plucked his way around upright bass to stage left and Michael Barker lent brushed rhythm, seated behind his drums and percussion. The Australians in the audience seemed split between those who already knew the none-more-hippie chorus refrain “Life’s not about being better than” and those who preferred to hold fire for their favourites from Butler’s back catalogue.
The latter group would have a while to wait as Daniella, a track dedicated to Butler’s wife Danielle with an extra syllable for rhythmic reasons, slowed the hip-swaying pace down a notch or two but provoked whoops aplenty at its close. Used To Get High, another addictive new one, was a bout of repetitive phrasing the kind of which he excels at – even those in the audience unfamiliar with it at the start were singing along with the chorus by the end.
In the States Butler is often compared with The Dave Matthews Band, John Mayer and Ben Harper, only the latter of which is even partly accurate. His heroes hail from roots and reggae, from Jimi Hendrix to – most obviously with gentle new track Groovin’ Slowly – Bob Marley. With his virtuouso guitar skills and hippieish appearance he should appeal to students and backpackers as a latter-day talisman. It’s already clear that his songwriting skills, while at times irritatingly preachy in the lyrics department, will stand the test of time. Epics in the vein of Sunrise Over Sea’s Treat You Mama or breakthrough single Zebra allow the trio room for improvisation, solos and showboating but lose none of their structure in the live arena.
By the time he closes, after just such an epic mid-song improvisation session, the Australians chattering are heard no more. Every eye and ear is on Butler. Showing no complacency at playing to a captive audience, here was a man obviously happy to be preaching his gospel to those who would listen and not taking it for granted that they would.