mixed showing for Aussie musicians

By Jim Stanford on August 19, 2013

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John Butler wails while performing with his trio last week at Center for the Arts.

At first glance, one of the bands playing in Jackson last week appeared to have been miscast for the venue. It turned out to be not the one people expected.

Australian guitarist John Butler and his trio performed at Center for the Arts on Aug. 13, a night before his fellow countryman, Xavier Rudd, played the Pink Garter. The roots-rock trio can be loud and rollicking, prompting fans to wonder whether Butler, too, would have been better served at the Garter.

Instead, the 450 or so who filled the theater were treated to a show that was intimate, mesmerizing and, at times, even rowdy.

Butler came out on banjo and alternated between six-string, 12-string and lap steel guitars. From the opening notes, he dropped jaws with his picking, using a variety of pedals, looping and other effects to create a much larger sound.

He explained that his mother spent her 20s in Jackson Hole, and he always wanted to visit. The band and crew arrived a few days early, with “one mob” riding motorcycles to Yellowstone and another mob “hiking around some lake.”

During the third song, “Used to Get High,” the audience got on its feet and remained so for most of the show — a rarity for the arts center. By the end fans were jumping up and down by their seats.

“I feel so extremely alive,” Butler said at one point.

Butler exults during the group’s two-hour performance.

The following night, the feeling was not so vivacious. A surprisingly large crowd packed the Pink Garter to see Rudd, who plays an array of didgeridoos, as well as harmonica, guitar and drums.

From the start his aboriginal chanting and trance-like rhythms were lost on a younger audience mostly there to socialize. Several times Rudd paused at the start of a song, clearly annoyed, waiting for the chatter to die down. A hush came over the crowd for perhaps a minute before the carousing took over again.

Before the show, a friend had told me how much I was going to like Rudd, who he billed as a hardcore environmentalist with intense lyrics. Rudd sported a tank top with a lion’s face across his chest. But when he cracked a bottled water before the third or fourth song, his image took a hit, and his lyrics, no matter how well crafted, were never really audible above the din.

“Wyoming, do you feel this world?” he asked, in a plea that fell short.

The evening had the feel of a drunk people’s yoga retreat in Boulder, Colo. Rudd did manage to build some momentum when he dropped the quieter numbers in favor of heavier reggae grooves, but by that point he had lost me.

As a listen to his most recent album, Spirit Bird, attests, Rudd has finesse as a songwriter and no doubt devotion to caring for the Earth. But he could have benefited from the clarity and intimacy afforded by the arts center.

Set list with guitar tunings.

Butler, by contrast, seemed to enjoy every minute of his gig. He played five songs for an encore and roughly two hours in all.

“Who’s aching you?” he sang during the encore, debuting a new song from a forthcoming album. “Losing You” and “Close to You” rounded out a triptych of heartache.

By the end, with the crowd howling and drumsticks bouncing into the orchestra seats, fans easily could have forgotten they were in the generally reserved center theater.

(Photographs by David Swift; gallery here)

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3 Comments so far

  1. rob August 19, 2013 8:03 pm

    couldnt agree more with that review.

  2. D August 21, 2013 8:29 am

    Watched JBT in SLC and saw a young lad in a jhunderground hat??? Or was I seeing things?

  3. Skip August 24, 2013 11:08 pm

    Nice dig on Boulder.

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