For me, John Butler Trio was the highlight of the night. I had been a fan of this group for a while, but seeing them in concert made it clear that their music was intended to be delivered live. John Butler is an empowering vocalist, especially during songs like “Revolution,” which plays like a rock anthem much larger than this trio. His folkier songs like “Better Than” maintain the heart his ballads have, while adding banjo and upright bass to the lineup
John Butler felt more than free to unleash some heartfelt (although muddled) diatribes against consumerism as well as anecdotal introductions to songs. These lead ins ranged from amusing stories, like a jog he had in the creek behind the venue that ended with him lying in a shallow stream getting nibbled on by guppies, to laid back philosophy, like his explanation of “Used to Get High” as an addiction to “reality TV, Walmart, and all that BS crap.” He never came off as preachy; his whole vibe effused relaxation and emotional awareness.
However, the highlight of their performance was Butler’s guitar playing. He is a humble virtuoso, whose fingers seem to move in inhuman, mesmerizing waves that produce a psychedelic yet down to earth, naturalistic aesthetic. His work with pedals and distortion function as an extension of his musicianship instead of an artificial enhancement. I’ve heard his solo guitar piece “Ocean” before, but nothing could have prepared me for how amazing it would be in concert. When performed live, “Ocean” is simply mind-blowing.The song builds and builds, and when you think there is no more places a single performer can go with just a guitar and effects, his musicianship elevated it to another level of epicness. This is one of the few pieces of music that can fundamentally change the way you view music. It oozes emotion and talent, and the story of busking on the Australian coast makes the piece all the more endearing. The whole ticket would have been worth it to see this one song. Yeah, it was that good!
As for the second headliner, I was a SOJA virgin. This local band had tons of grassroots support; this was the most packed I had ever seen Wolf Trap. Like John Butler, SOJA frontman Jacob Hemphill was laid back and engaging with his audience, calling out the local high schools (Yorktown, Wakefield, Herndon, etc.) that his bandmates attended.
Hemphill was also aware of how unusual his mostly white Reggae group from Northern Virginia is. His direct address of this only made the crowd wilder in its support, and they were already pretty wild to begin with. This swaying, bobbing, and completely engaged crowd of Reggae fans completely lit up the venue with a party atmosphere. The lazer show paired with the thick haze provided constant visual interest beyond the band’s quirky dance moves and magnetic stage presence.
The spirit of the band was encapsulated by Bob “Bobby Lee” Jefferson, whose high kicks and bouncy strut fell perfectly into place with the rest of the band. He interacted with the crowd as he slapped his bass, sporting some dorky yet cool shades along with his flowing dreads. His rumbling, low voice spat in a rapid fire cadence, making my favorite singer from the band. Guitarist Trevor young had a crystalline, pure voice that balanced Hemphill’s nasal vocals (which were honestly not all that pleasant for me to listen to) well. In addition, he laid down some excellent solos.
The brass section added huge bursts of energy and power to each song, acting as one of the most integral aspects of the music. There was a great amount of variety between the songs, including a rap interlude and a huge drum circle, led a whistle and a snare drum. Some highlights include the emotional and nostalgic “When We Were Younger” and the groovy, romantic piece “You and Me.”
Hemphill also led the audience with overt political messages of unity and globalism, spouting Reggae ideals between most songs. He brought the crowd together in thought and song, getting vocal engagement from the audience in songs like “Not Done Yet.”
This great concert put two unique bands together for a thoroughly entertaining night. Even if Reggae or Folk isn’t your thing, these bands are the perfect ways to get introduced to these genres.
Running Time: Three hours and thirty minutes with one twenty minute intermission.
SOJA and John Butler Trio played for one night only on July 31, 2013 at The Filene Center at Wolf Trap -1645 Trap Road, in Vienna, VA. For future performances and Information, check their calendar of events.
John Butler Trio website.