The Reverb Interview: John Butler of the John Butler TrioBy Ricardo Baca | August 11th, 2011 | 3 comments
In the John Butler Trio’s new “Live at Red Rocks” CD/DVD set, there’s a beat that sets frontman Butler apart from the roots-dub-jam pack.
A noted Australian environmentalist, Butler took the time in front of his biggest-ever headlining audience in the U.S. last June to thank American Indians, some of whom helped open his Morrison show as a part of the Denver March Powwow Dancers.
“We would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of this land that we’re upon today,” Butler said on the disc, recorded June 4, 2010. “We’d like to pay our respects to their ancestors past and present, to all their family members.”
It’s a special moment on a two-CD, one-DVD set that is full of them. And as Butler looks forward to his return to the legendary natural amphitheater on Friday, he remains indebted to the natives who first occupied this (and any other) land.
“There are some places you go to that you have to honor,” Butler said last week from a tour stop in Vermont. “In every place in the colonized world, you honor the first- nation people. It’s tradition in Australia that if you go to a region and you’re respectful, you honor the original owners of that land.
“It’s like how a politician would mention in his speech the honoraries in the crowd, presidents and queens and anyone else. And when you go to a place like Red Rocks, it’s obviously such a sacred place. It’s good to acknowledge and remind people what land you’re on and who took care of it in the millennium before we got here.”
Like many other artists, Butler is now addicted to Colorado’s gem of an amphitheater.
Growing up in California and Western Australia, he of course caught glimpses of Red Rocks in U2 music videos. But he never felt the location’s metaphoric weight until he played there for the first time, a gig opening for the Dave Matthews Band in the early 2000s.
“It seemed like a dream at the time,” said Butler, who has made a name for himself with a style of jammy, roots-inspired music that closely resembles that of Matthews.
After more opening slots at Red Rocks, Butler made it his goal to someday headline the foothills venue. When the plans were set for June’s show, Butler and his team made the call to tape the concert, even if only for the sake of memory.
The show had its struggles, including Butler starting to lose his voice after three songs.
But that made the night all the more memorable and intense.
“Here I am, with 9,000 people there, and I’m losing my voice,” Butler said. “And that’s what I like about the show. . . . There’s a real intensity, like I’m playing for my life.
“It’s like you’re holding it together because there’s such a surge of electricity going through your body, and having it captured in that place, for those people, in that time, makes it all the more special.”
Friday’s Red Rocks show — and the trio’s Thursday warm-up at the Fox Theatre in Boulder — will feature Butler with his still-newish trio, rounded out by drummer Nicky Bomba and bassist Byron Luiters, who started playing with him in 2010.
Several assumptions have been made about the trio’s changeover, but Butler wants to set the record straight.
“I get very attached to the people I play with,” he said. “The last trio, we played together for seven years, and before that it was a series of people coming and going. When I did finally get around to changing the trio up, it was a huge decision.”
Butler had invited Bomba, his friend/collaborator/brother-in-law, over for a jam when things clicked into place. Butler jokingly asked him if he wanted to tour, and Bomba seriously said yes.
“That was a big moment,” Butler said. “It was exciting because there was some clarity, but at the same time, I had to break up the trio, and I’d been playing with those guys for seven or eight years. They’re uncles to my children, and we spend most of our lives together. . . . I was just following what the muse said to do.”
It was risky, but Butler and his former trio parted amicably, he said, and now he’s thrilled with the new group — impressive, given the family dynamics that are now involved in a John Butler Trio show. They always involve his brother-in-law and often bring in his wife, too.
Such challenges are nothing new for the man who honed his skills busking on the streets of Fremantle, Australia, an arty southern suburb of Perth.
“It’s just something I’ve always done,” Butler said. “Me and my wife (Danielle Caruana, a.k.a. Mama Kin) are amazing partners in more ways than one. She’s an intrinsic part of my music business, and she always has been.
“But she’s also a fantastic musician, and at the moment, she’s on the road with her band opening up for us. It just seems to work.
“Life’s not a segregated thing. Music, business, family — it all merges and dances together. Finding the right rhythm to dance to is the challenge.”
Red Rocks as co-star
The John Butler Trio isn’t the first group to find inspiration in Red Rocks Amphitheatre’s angular, behemoth sandstone. Here are five of the best-known recordings from the legendary amphitheater.
1. U2, “Under a Blood Red Sky.” This 1983 live CD and video (now DVD) from a young U2 was enhanced by Red Rocks’ majesty and the foothills’ unpredictable weather.
2. Dave Matthews Band, “Live at Red Rocks 8.15.95.” Capturing the band on the way (waaaay) up, this pre-”Crash” outing closes with a raw “All Along the Watchtower.”
3. Stevie Nicks, “Live at Red Rocks.” This hour-long video/ DVD from 1987 has Nicks missing the Fleetwood Mac gang, but it’s a fascinating portrait of a star amid transition.
4. Neil Young, “Friends & Relatives: Red Rocks Live.” In this 2000 DVD, Young is joined by (you guessed it) pals and kin, including bassman Donald “Duck” Dunn and wife Pegi Young.
5. John Tesh, “Live at Red Rocks.” Love him or hate him, more people likely saw this Emmy-winning PBS special (and heard its accompanying CD) than U2′s now-legendary video.