Supported by Missy Higgins and Stella Donnelly, this was a special show for all.
Missy Higgins strode onto the stage at Sidney Myer Music Bowl to rapturous applause. The first keys struck from her piano sketching out the sombre notes of ‘Sugarcane’. She’s sick we soon find out, taking a break in between numbers to ask for tissues from stage left. A quick blow and then laugh from the audience though, and we’re smoothed back into Higgins’ delightfully ethereal melodies.
We journey through ‘Going North’, ‘Ten Days’ and ‘Oh Canada’, arriving at a particularly mesmerising version of ‘The Special Two’. Every lyric sung out into the night air by Higgins is returned back tenfold by the crowd; the harmonies such a chorus makes sends chills up the spine.
It’s ‘Scar’ though that gets people out of their seats, and seems the perfect tune to end on. Started by her transition from keys to signature black acoustic guitar, it brings in some much-needed pace to finish the set on a high. A fantastic performance showcasing the career of a precocious talent, who at just 35, already has a back catalogue spanning 15 years.
As we wait next for the John Butler Trio, the sun retreats past the hill and into the night, leaving an intoxicating anticipation. An eclectic crowd simmers on the thought the oncoming mix of heady, bluesy roots music. Queue ‘Wade In Water’, a slide guitar tune that sees Butler scale up and down the neck with astounding virtuosity. Each brassy wrought line from the lap steel pulled with such emotion that it seems as if he’s made the wood weep. The tone, was decidedly set.
From there, Butler and Co. reeled through the back catalogue: ‘Better Than’, ‘Tahitian Blue’, ‘Faith’ and ‘Flesh and Blood’, the crowd lapping it up at every turn. And as is the case with most of their gigs, there was no hesitation to jam, with Butler frequently switching instruments and allowing the other band members to solo.
It’s when the lights dim to a solitary beam, and the band retreats back into the dark that the crowd really heats up though. Butler, sitting with his iconic 11-string guitar and feet at his pedals it can mean only one thing – ‘Ocean’. Part buskers jam, part musical odyssey, it’s an enthralling piece. Butler’s cascade of legato and fingerpicking held together by his stead self-accompanied percussion.
A switch to a white Telecaster suggests a new mood, something electric and grittier. Butler spares no time sketching out a bluesy groove thicker than molasses. He trades licks with the band and makes the guitar howl with freak-outs, riding through the jam until it explodes into a cacophony.
Butler also takes plenty of time to indulge in the art of the yarn between songs. Something that sets up ‘Coffee Methadone and Cigarettes’ beautifully. Chiming in a melancholy note, Butler shares a story about the pain his family underwent after his grandfather died fighting bushfires in Western Australia.
He closes out the set with a three-song encore, telling the crowd on the last song that they’ll need to sing it back, and to make it loud but quick, or they’ll get a $70,000 fine. And what better song to end on than ‘Zebra’, a riff with bags and bags of groove. It’s tight and punchy before extending into a jam. And whilst the band play underneath, Butler asks the crowd to share vocals with him a la Freddie Mercury at Wembley Stadium. He belts out bare melodies and the crowd follows him, some challenging enough to stretch even the seasoned singer. By the end, there’s feeling that the John Butler Trio had gotten back what they had put into the show which was everything in the eyes of their devoted fans.
Highlight: The electric guitar freak out. Who doesn’t like some bluesy carnage?
Lowlight: People yelling yew and whistling during the quieter moments.
Crowd Favourite: ‘Ocean’, a thousand times ‘Ocean’.