There were happy faces all around the Palais Theatre, after an evening of virtuoso musicianship and warm banter.
I’ve enjoyed a good handful of John Butler Trio songs over the years, but I’d describe myself as a very casual fan of their rootsy rock and wouldn’t necessarily pop their records on. Live, however, is an entirely different matter. I was blown away by John Butler’s energetic and passionate solo set at the Big Day Out many moons ago, so when I saw An Evening with John Butler advertised, I jumped at the chance to see him live again. First, of course, we all had to wait for the live music to return to Melbourne, but after a long delay and rescheduled dates, it finally happened.
This was also my first live concert after the mask mandates were dropped; though they were technically recommended by the venue it looked like very few people were eager to take it up on a humid Melbourne night. It really makes a huge difference to the atmosphere when you can see people’s faces without the dehumanising blue blobs of the surgical masks.
After a brief inner rant about the cost of street parking in St Kilda, I made my way to the Palais Theatre, which I haven’t visited for about six years. It’s been so long since I originally purchased my ticket that I was pleasantly surprised by how close my seat was to the stage, merely seven rows away or so. I arrived in the middle of the supporting act, Nicky Bomba, who performed solo armed with an impressive percussion set and loop pedals. At one point he raced across the stage with a pair of drum sticks, using every surface as a percussion: the stage floor, the giant amps to the side, and so on. He seemed like a happy, positive soul.
Not that I don’t love it when artists play with a full band, but I feel that there’s always something special and intimate about a solo show, where they’re more exposed and in a way more vulnerable. During the show, John Butler confessed to a severe case of stage nerves, but you wouldn’t know it from the casual, relaxed and down-to-earth way he strolled onstage and conversed with the audience, as if he was in a presence of a few old friends rather than a full theatre of strangers.
At the beginning of the night, he issued a trigger warning about his tendency to, a) swear profusely, and b) bring up the topics you’re not supposed to talk about at dinner, i.e. politics, war, capitalism, environment and religion. He ended up giving his piece of mind on all of the latter during his rambling chats in between the songs; I might not personally agree with every single point or sentiment but I appreciate the fact that Butler is clearly an earnest and sincere guy who thinks and cares deeply about things. He also shared some personal stories, about inheriting a special guitar from his grandfather who perished while fighting a bush fire, and travelling to India during a monsoon season to study with an Indian guitar master.
During the generous two and a half hour set, the audience was treated to favourites like Zebra, Better Than and Treat Yo Mama, along with epic instrumentals that might have felt self-indulgent if it wasn’t for the sheer awe-inspiring display of musicianship. Self-indulgent or not, I loved the long extended intros, outros and jams, with Butler switching effortlessly between six- and 12-string acoustics, banjo, slide guitars, pedals and harmonica. He also did a heartfelt cover of Danny Boy, a song that has a special place in his family.
The evening was a bit of a family affair: Butler’s wife and fellow singer-songwriter, Mama Kin, joined him for a duet, as did the opener Nicky Bomba who turned out to be Butler’s brother-in-law. During the encore, Mama Kin was back onstage alongside Melbourne girl Clare Bowditch:
Though I love Palais, it was a bit of a shame having to remain in the seat; at one point a trio of young women got out of their seats to dance in the aisle, before they were quickly shooed away by the ushers. Near the end of the night, however, the audience was pumped enough for the front rows to stand up and groove along to the final songs, and I joined them happily.
P.S. The only dark cloud on the night was some poor middle-aged guy suddenly collapsing in the aisle. He was given immediate help and attention and hopefully he recovered alright. It might have been a simple case of dehydration and lack of decent air-conditioning in the venue, but it was a tad too easy to think of the worst scenario on a day the whole country was reeling after Shane Warne passed away at the age of 52.