John Butler Trio in Chicago

Lennon. Scofield. Mayer. Butler.

There’s just something about musicians named John.

Fitting inside the talented and innovative list, the John Butler Trio put on an excellent show at Chicago’s Riviera Theatre, despite the people who filled the crowd.

The opener, Ki:Theory, was disappointing. Each of the singer/guitarist’s songs were basic, indistinctive and not engaging enough for the large, crowded venue. Though his voice was beautiful, the guitar chords in each song were so simple that I could type an entire song out on a cell phone keypad. Near the end, he sang a song that repeated the phrase, “It’s all the same.” Hmm … how ironic.

Thankfully, John Butler Trio was fantastic live. Singing with a soulful voice that Dave Matthews wishes he had, attention was obviously drawn towards Butler’s direction, but the Trio’s other members had enough stage presence and talent to grab plenty of glances too. Bassist Shannon Birchall continuously switched between upright and guitar – a move I respect and thoroughly enjoy – and drummer Michael Barker was extremely happy and energetic.

As a trio, they were incredibly solid. Between the harmonica solo that lead into “Daniella” and the ukulele-led “Groovin’ Slowly” (which was stuck in my head for the rest of the night), the three collaborated with an impressive intensity. The best part of the show, though, was the encore. After Butler introduced a couple in the balcony that got engaged on the spot, the trio played “Peaches & Cream.” At the end, dressed in a “Support Your Independent Record Store” shirt, Butler came down to the front of the stage and led the audience in a stunning, collective singing of the line, “All I know is I love you.”

“Are you feeling the love?” Butler said after the song. “Take that love with you, and spread it in your lives.” After a little more music, the bassist and drummer played extensive solos to wrap up the show.

If there was one thing I extremely disliked, though, it was the crowd. It was all wrong. To my right, a 16-year-old in a tie-dye T-shirt with braces was tripping on acid, while the couple on my left was grinding on each other. In front of me were two girls who kept yelling, “WOO!!!” throughout each song, and the three guys behind me were just cocky assholes.

Though all of this was irritating, the crowd was the absolute worst during Butler’s solo acoustic portion of the show. While he played a gorgeous song with no lyrics that began by tapping all over the guitar’s surface, people began to talk. When he would escalate the jam and therefore made it louder, the chit-chat turned into cheers, and when Butler would quiet down again, the chatter would return. Since they were at the show, the musically dense audience must get JBT’s music, but I doubt that the majority of them get it. And when a shoving match broke out behind me – immediately after Butler talked about peace, love and making a difference – I had lost all hope for the crowd to actually understand what John Butler Trio’s music and message was.

But, don’t blame JBT for the crowd – the Chicago fans might suck, but that in no way means their tunes do. So, if you’re a fan of the various Johns, give this one a chance. You’ll be glad that you did.

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