Friday, May 4, 2012

John Butler's "Tin Shed Tales" @ HiFi Bar, 25/4/12

There’s a Collingwood guernsey in the lineup, and a few drunk sailors wandering past from Young & Jackson try to blag their way into the HiFi. It’s been a long, wet Anzac Day, and thankfully Felicity Groom is downstairs warming up. She switches from guitar to autoharp and back again, finishing with a crowd-pleasing take on Mental As Anything’s Live It Up and haunting renditions of her own Siren Song and An Ache. This is John Butler’s “Tin Shed Tales” tour and the curtains part to reveal a beautiful corrugated iron set hung with instruments, skateboards and some interesting art (is that Donald Duck vomiting?). The man himself strolls out to rapturous applause, launching straight into the feelgood opening of Gonna Be A Long Time and Better Than. A kick drum brings the bass every time he taps his right foot, and punters bop and sing along.

Anyone hoping to dance all night is soon disappointed, because tonight the magic is in the stories Butler tells; the performance is as much spoken-word as musical, although one complements the other. Introducing Good As Gone, he tells of immigrants distilling moonshine, gene pools and Celtic folk music in the Appalachian Mountains – and then demonstrates the progression on his banjo. Perhaps anxious not to seem didactic, he speaks somewhat haltingly of the campaign to stop Woodside’s gas plant in the Kimberley. But what follows is an eloquent piece of protest music built around the simple but unforgettable image of Kimberley as a “wild and free” girl coveted by callous cowboys. Then, less than a week after David Bridie sang Danny Boy for Jim Stynes at the MCG, Butler puts his own spin on the classic tune with an exquisite intro whose high notes float effortlessly from his slide guitar. It’s a lovely moment imbued with moving family history and the power of music to help us heal and remember.

There is one song that loses its essence in the Tin Shed: slowed down and stripped of its rhythm section, Revolution seems more distant than ever. But Zebra ends the main set on a high, and then Felicity Groom reappears to sing Danielle Caruana’s part in Jenny. As voices clamour for Ocean, Butler takes us back to the time he left university to “busk next to a bin”, and discovered that music can convey feelings words simply cannot. It’s an invitation to share a moment of personal, even spiritual, reflection, as the instrumental epic builds inexorably to a climax of raw sonic energy and the house lights come up.

(written for Inpress, for print and online publication)

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