John Butler : live review of folk blues underground hero
Leicester is known as an apathetic place and it is never more apathetic than how apathetic it is to it’s own. The voices, the players, the dreamers, they are here, they always have been but there’s never been chance of us ever becoming the new Manchester – though to be the old Leicester would do.It used to feel like something was here among us and that some spirit would lift us. Wahtever that dream was it sure wasn’t Kasabian.
But new young voices are rising, trying.. and there is the old stuff. Never under-estimate the old stuff, the stuff with roots, with attitude, with spit in its eye. The stuff that got knocked down but got back up again. The stuff that can die a thousand deaths and still come back to die again.
Across the tracks from the millions-gone-over-budget theatre and the further millions worth of digital arts centre that Leicester City Council likes to call ‘The Cultural Quarter’, past vacant shop lots, industrial units and a bleak demolition site turned car park stands The Musician, one of those brave little outposts that often hosts events that seem more cultural than the culture on the official ‘cultural’ side of town.
There’s one rainy, cold Thursday night there a couple of weeks ago that I can’t get out of my mind. It troubles me deeply. I felt like I had to do something about it. I felt like I had to write this.
I saw something that was simply world class, one of the best there is. Had the songs been by Dylan the plaudits would be piled high, “The best he’s ever done since the sixties”. We wouldn’t have been twenty odd people trying to fill the gaps in a venue that can hold ten times that. We’d have been in one of the corporate barns clutching our 75 quid tickets at the back.
But we’re in a city, in a country, in a world that takes it’s John Butler’s for granted though Butler may not especially care about that. He may feel he has made his point. He’s a blood and guts artist who didn’t do this to please YOU or whoever he was supposed to please. He pleased himself and he laughed at the music business, even when it gave him the hundred grand cheque.
There’s even some other John Butler, a very good John Butler in his own way, who has outsold this John Butler here by the odd few zillion albums. a hilarious comment on one You Tube clip has an exasperated fan of ‘the other Butler’ accusing the poster of the video of trying to get more views by using the John Butler name, this is not John Butler, he doesn’t play guitar left handed.
THIS John Butler does. He flips a right hand strung guitar over and plays it upside down or outside in or farside out or whatever.
I was so early to this show I caught him post soundcheck sat cross-legged on the stage with a beautiful old Gibson acoustic, jamming with himself. It was so good it should have been an official part of the set, wordless but saying everything.
Where’s the people? Where’s the crowd?? Where is the love??? This is the Midlands caught in between the beautiful south and the beautiful north. It all passes through us, the traffic of trends, styles, fashions, whats hot. We’re what’s not.
The happy few who are finally present get a real bonus treat with Dave Harding, normally the bassist for Richmond Fontaine, doing a solo support slot. He’s living in Copenhagen and seems to be doing well there, seems a all round good guy with some good tunes. He makes me a bit ashamed of my ignorance of his main outfit but for their distinctive name but there’s a lot that deserves checking out that isn’t getting checked out and a lot that doesn’t that is, that’s one of our great modern cultural imbalances in this X Factorized age.
So after a break on comes John in a beret and a long black coat, perched on a stool, always looking like he’s going to spring up, never sitting back comfortably.
Normally John is wrapped up in a sonic blanket of luscious chiming guitars in Diesel Park West, his fellow guitarist Rick Willson being the player other Leicester players say is the best – because he simply is. Diesel Park West had a moment, on Food Records, EMI, Food Records before Blur and Britpop, in the late 80s before the 90s. These Leicester lads who had the touch of Byrds, Moby Grape and Buffalo Springfield about them, well, they came to save rock’n’roll like all the greats do, they kind of did save it but BBC Radio 1 did not like that, Jools Holland Later said never, the late 80s turned into the 90s and Oasis won the cup. Leicester never win the cup do they?
John digs back into those times with customary sharpness, he has some funny tales to tell and he tells them well. Conventional stardom was an option then. Didn’t the UK want the lovechild of a secret affair between Bob Dylan’s dad and John Lennon’s mum? It seemed not, or not enough anyway but those songs that were his bid for glory don’t sound dead. They sound like they are about now. Despite having heard them so many times tonight I have multiple epiphanies, I get revelations from them line after line, I might be having a religious experience even. ‘Boy On Top Of The News’ is as much about today’s feral celebrity culture as it was about then. ‘All The Myths On Sunday’ is the national anthem of all Daily Mail readers. The beautifully moving ‘Fall To Love’ evokes fresh tears now as it did when they missed getting on ‘Top Of The Pops’ with it by a whisker of a chart placing. The plugger didn’t plug quite hard enough. It didn’t quite fit on the playlist.
The game is never up. It is, truly, never TOO late. John called his second album ‘Worthless Bastard Rock’ though – Radio 2 surely turned their back on that idea. John is at war with the BBC and a lot of other things. How did the outlets get so limitless and yet so limited? So much knowledge but mostly so much that is stupid rises to the top.
This is the age of Sheeran, of Bugg while Bragg reassures the oldies. John Butler doesn’t reassure anybody of anything. “It’s normal behavior, to wait for a saviour, I’ve got nothing against it but don’t ask me for clues”
There always seems to be a passionate rage about him, it’s there in the voice. Passionate rage doesn’t always suit everyone. It’s not comfortable. It’s not safe. “The greatest gifts come bloody as fur”..
He does a heartfelt cover of David Crosby’s ‘Everybody Has Been Burned’ because he has, I have, you have, we all have.
“..white as surf, cool as fuck and bloody as fur”
I could call him England’s great lost songwriter but John doesn’t consider himself lost. There’s a guy who has come over from Germany just for this, videoing and recording every note of it, more appreciation there than in much of the populace only yards away.
I may be more worried about this than Butler is. He sings “I love the singing life”, does just that for 20 plus songs then packs his two guitars away and slips out of the venue without a goodbye to anyone. I just wish more people knew about it, I wish they cared about this and about a lot of other things. I just think that John is one of our greats right under our collective noses, they, whoever THEY are are not telling you this – but I am. Some things just matter THAT much and John Butler and his songs certainly do, they are the classics many of you have never heard.. yet.