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The roar of the crowd. The whistles and claps. The synchronized voices singing in unison. The collective side to side sway of many bodies becoming one. The coinciding collision of energy.
There are innumerable forces at play that contribute to the experience that is live music. Weaving their way through sonic waves, bending with the lights, and intertwined amongst audience members, each element of the performance and production works together to create something so meaningful and powerful that it is nearly beyond words. But take all of the pomp and circumstance away and what remains? Remove the stage, the scaffolding, the sound equipment, and the lighting arrays and what is left? Passion. Passion resonating from even an unamplified musician and their craft, passion flowing from a group of people bound together by a shared love of the music and its creator. It is that passion that drives everything forward, but it takes a deeply connected and open artist to make it felt. Voicing that as his mission in an interview with acclaimed and nationally-syndicated non-profit radio program eTown, John Butler said, “I want to make the world a better place through song...that communal almost church-like experience when community comes together and the community gives just as much as the band does.” I was able to take part in that near-religious communal experience on August 1 when John Butler and his extended trio played at Asbury Park’s iconic Stone Pony Summer Stage. And in returning to my native state to see my favorite band alongside family and musical collaborators after months apart, fulfilling that for which Butler’s latest album yearns, I finally felt like I was home.
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After Trevor Hall’s opening set lay the groundwork for acoustic roots appreciation, Butler took the stage to massive applause alongside new band members Terepai Richmond (drums, percussion, vocals), OJ Newcomb (bass, keyboards, vocals), and Elana Stone (keyboards, additional percussion, vocals). Beginning the show with a dedication to familial and cultural heritage, Butler acknowledged both the Native Americans as the traditional custodians of the land and the attendants’ individual lineages that brought them to that place and time. As is customary of Butler’s performances, this acknowledgement brings everyone in attendance-the band, the audience, the crew, the venue staff-together by bringing to light the commonality of shared history and interlaced roots across time and space. Following an eerie Indian-inspired introduction emboldened by a hip-hop-influenced beat, the trio+ launched into the Weissenborn slide guitar-centric roots rocker “Wade in the Water.” Creating a separation between the aforementioned history and the individual, the song is a journey in self-discovery through isolation and the re-evaluation of priorities by eliminating societal influences. As if simulating the enlightened return to civilization and a lover as told in the lyrics, the extended lineup’s tight harmonic vocal prowess was put on full display in this opening song, especially during the instrumental stop-and-start following the Hindustani-inspired solo at the beginning of the second verse. After only four weeks of organized rehearsal and just over a month of touring together, the cohesion and comfort amongst the current lineup truly speaks to their level of musicianship.
Opening with “Wade in the Water” also set the precedent for the remainder of the set to feature a number of songs off of 2018’s Home, among them being “Running Away”, “Faith”, and “Home”. Anchored by ethereal keys, synth bass, and a catchy acoustic riff on the record, “Running Away” gained more energy in the live setting. Incorporating many of the same elements in comparison to the album, the bridge took the confrontation of anxiety and personal demons to a full-fledged internal fight. Putting Butler’s pedal dexterity to grand use in creating a crunchy, overdriven effect whose punch was matched by more organic, driving, crash-heavy rock drums, this sound resonated to me more than the production on the album. Showcasing an equally introspective, yet more optimistic perspective, Butler prefaced “Faith” by assuring the audience that this was most assuredly not the “come to Jesus” portion of the show. Referencing Christianity, Buddhism, environmentalism, and psychedelia in speaking on how people find the means to persevere and discover meaning and purpose, he acknowledged his own uncertainty on the subject but framed his experiences as more of a feeling than a practice. Espousing a desire for more people to find peace in their own way, the song spoke to the observations and questioning present throughout Butler’s own spiritual journey. Appearing almost exactly as it does on the album, “Home” was presented without the Telecaster accompaniment used in early performances. Although missed, it felt to me as though John wanted to show that his guitar was not a crutch and that his lyrics and instrumental arrangement could carry a song. Singing with palpable pain and frustration over a full-band percussive arrangement and deeply reverberating synth bass, I would say that this endeavor was a heart-aching success. Further, it is one to which I can personally relate with the trials, tribulations, and struggles of the past year in having moved over seven hours away from my family and friends.
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Mixing in songs from throughout his discography, Butler’s guitar versatility was highlighted in “Blame It on Me” off of 2014’s Flesh and Blood with his use of the Telecaster to rip a screaming Hendrix-esque solo out of the ether and into reality. Breaking the Weissenborn out again toward the end of the set, Butler’s Indian stylistic influences and inclination for combining genres into an original sound was displayed on “Treat Yo Mama” from 2003’s live album Living 2001-2002 and 2004’s Sunrise Over Sea. The span of his influences and styles was also made abundantly clear in the song choices of the encore. Returning to the stage alone after the harshly critical themes and tribal rhythms of “We Want More” ended the set, Butler’s beautifully subdued fingerpicking ushered in the heartfelt and softly sung lyrics of “Losing You”, a song dedicated to his wife Danielle Caruana aka “Mama Kin” and the bond of their love above all else. Following the deeply personal folk ballad, the band rejoined Butler on stage as he picked up a hollow body electric guitar and started to play the melody of “Losing You” with a far more distorted tone before the cagey drums of “Livin’ in the City” introduced its signature gutsy guitar riff. A blatant criticism relating to the frustrations of the rat race emblematic of life in the urban landscape, the rest of the band stepped away from their instruments following the guitar solo to join Butler around his microphone. Harmonizing over the chorus lyrics in a uniquely stripped-back R&B-inspired moment, it was then followed by a raging, near-metal outro.
Although the eponymous member of the trio, the other musicians on stage were also given their space to display their talents as each audibly contributed to the overall sound and vibe. Elana Stone’s vocals were an angelic accompaniment to “Wade in the Water” and “Betterman” while her use of the mouth harp added an Australian country bump to encore-ender “Funky Tonight.” Her accordion was also the addition that I didn’t previously know was needed on “Tahitian Blue” and “Ragged Mile”. Terepai Richmond’s rhythmic sensibilities served as the foundation of every song for which the band was on stage, but they added a distinct roots vibe to “Zebra.” Incorporating the cowbell (a la Nicky Bomba), he later ditched a drumstick to play the bongos with his left hand while astoundingly tending to the rest of the kit with his right hand. OJ Newcomb’s proficiency on all-things-bass was displayed throughout the set as he switched between synth bass on new songs like “Just Call”, to electric bass guitar on “Running Away”, and upright bass on “Better Than”.
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However, the most cohesive showing of each of the new trio member’s talents came on “Pickapart.” Originally a gritty, country roots punk track promoting freedom in individuality in the face of social disapproval, it has seen a funky rock infusion over the past six years spanning the tenures of drummer Nicky Bomba, bassist Byron Luiters, and drummer Grant Gerathy. Acknowledging the lineage of this song’s life in the live setting while continuing its evolution, the song incorporated a profoundly funky instrumental break before the second verse in which Newcomb’s quickly bouncing bass and Richmond’s dancey rhythm were at the forefront while Butler’s acoustic slide lightly traversed over top. Richmond’s rapid rock drumming then took over at the start of the verse as Butler let single strums ring out as he sang the ominously optimistic lyrics, “I got four Hail Mary’s flying over my head trying to make me sad everyday | Gonna shoot those little motherfuckers down with my positive artillery.” Again unleashing the funk following the bend- and slide-heavy guitar solo, Newcomb riffed away on the bass guitar as they later broke back into a stylistically re-explored rendition of the second verse. Richmond then dropped into a funk roots drum solo adding the aforementioned bongos and cowbell before the entire trio coalesced into one well-oiled machine for an in-your-face, head-banging roots metal outro driven by Butler’s overdriven guitar riff. Considering the short amount of time that this lineup has been together, their simultaneous oneness and showcase of individuality in this free, yet structured jam really excited me for the things to come as they continue to mesh.
Maybe it was the revitalizing energy of experiencing the set through these new members and enjoying the vibes they bring to the stage or maybe it was the rush of playing at a new venue for the first time, but it seemed to me like this was the most fun I’ve ever seen John have while performing. Extremely animated during the songs and letting the music physically move him, he also brought some energy to the microphone between songs, riling up the crowd to “not give a fuck” and sing loud even if it’s not pretty during “Zebra”, musing on the post-show come-down before “Home”, and calling out the posh hors d'oeuvre-eating voyeurs peaking at the show from across the street. Being the eighth time I’ve seen him perform, he always brings a commanding presence, powerful message, heir of spirituality, and positive energy to the stage, but this time felt different for some reason. Maybe it’s symbolic of my own journey and returning to something so familiar after so much time away or maybe it has come with John’s sense of relief in having a new sound and deeply personal subject matter be so well-received. Although he still brings the urgency and fervor of his messages to light by way of his music, as the track on Home states, it feels as though John does not have to be angry anymore. It seems as though that anger that has driven much of his discography has been focused into hope-hope for himself, his family, and future generations, hope that his music can reach enough people to make a difference, and hope that introspection can help solve social problems outside the individual.
Whatever the cause, the atmosphere of the Summer Stage on that night was like no other I had experienced previously from the band, venue, or any other show for that matter. The high energy was sustained throughout the entire set, seeming as though it would never end through classics like “Better Than”, “Zebra”, “Funky Tonight”, and the tear-inducing, quasi-religious experience that is the solo instrumental powerhouse “Ocean.” Through it all, it seemed like the applause would never stop. However, beyond the formality was something far deeper and more connective. In that same eTown interview, John summed up that something and the entire experience of all of his shows in saying, “I don't really think the band comes to be clapped at and I don't think the audience comes to clap at a band. I think we come together to raise the vibration. Prose, rhythm, and melody do magical things.” Take away the pomp and circumstance and what remains?
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