The power of three was in full force Tuesday night (June 15) in New York’s Central Park. Maybe it was the energy of the sold-out crowd at SummerStage, the perfectly still summer air or the extra few minutes of daylight from a sunset that just wouldn’t back down. Whatever the answer, John Butler Trio put place and time aside during a 13-song set that was packed with acoustic numbers, jam sessions and fan favorites.
The everchanging Trio — which now consists of John Butler on guitars and vocals, Byron Luiters on bass and Nicky Bomba on drums and percussion — commanded the crowd from the start with “Used to Get High,” a strong opening choice that had fans bouncing and shaking. Butler showcased his folky, Australian-rooted twang on “Better Than,” the group’s third song of the set and one of the clearly perferred singalongs. Even those new to the music of John Butler Trio were singing along by the end, thanks to the Butler’s catchy, repetitive phrasing.
Live, Butler is especially impressive because of the versatility he displays with his equipment. He can shape his sound at will, moving from a hard-hitting electric jam to a soft, melodic harmony that lulls the band’s untamed energy down to a quiet coo. Butler did just this on his next two songs, “Revolution” and “Take Me,” both selections from his latest album, “April Uprising.” With just one alluring transition, the Trio took the crowd seamlessly from a hip-swaying toe-tapper to a soulful tunnel of deep electric sound on “Revolution,” which was rounded out with an extended jam.
After the song, Butler swapped guitars for a Gibson electric before moving into “Take Me,” where Middle Eastern influence and finger-picking — the skill Butler mastered before deciding to pursue music seriously — came to the surface. Bandmates Luiters and Bomba exited the stage for the next number, “Losing You,” and were replaced by Butler’s wife and “beautiful queen” Danielle, who moved the audience with her inspirational harmonies and touched as the couple shared a moving performance.
Fans of John Butler Trio would have left disappointed (though only slightly) had the band not performed it’s arguably most poignant track, “Ocean,” which the frontman dedicated to victims of the BP oil spill in the Gulf. Butler performed “Ocean” solo, extending the melody for a full twelve minutes and building up the crowd’s genuine appreciation for the man and the band with each second. As Butler hit the peak of the song’s intensity, his fingers flew faster on the lap slide with an aggressive style unique to him.
The Trio shredded on through “Good Excuse,” giving Luiters and Bomba their first serious solo opportunities. While both still appear to be searching for their distinctive groove within the group, Luiters performed some truly impressive riffs and Bomba hooked the crowd with a playful call-and-response.
The group closed the show with “Close To You” and came jogging back onto stage, literally, for an encore performance of “Funky Tonight.” While venue restrictions limited the Trio to just one song for the encore, Butler and his bandmates made their last performance a meaningful one. As they left the stage, thousands of fulfilled fans continued humming the songs through star-lit Central park and onto the streets of New York City.
Opening for Butler and co. was another trio, the Boston-based State Radio. The group performed material from its latest album, “Let It Go,” and lead singer Chicoree Stokes warmed up the crowd with a blend of punk, reggae and roots during energetic numbers like “Mansin Humanity.”
Here is John Butler Trio’s setlist:
“Used to Get High”
“I Don’t Wanna See Your Face”
“Treat Yo Mama”
“One Way Road”
“Close To You”