The John Butler Trio and special guest Mama Kin Spender performed at Albany’s Empire Performing Arts Center on Thursday, July 12 to a packed house of enthusiastic fans. The two Australian-based bands have a very special connection – their lead members are married to one another. JBT’s front man and namesake John Butler and Danielle Caruana, who performs as Mama Kin in the folk duo Mama Kin Spender, have been married since 1999. The couple have two children together: a daughter, Banjo, and a son, Jahli, who are currently joining their parents on the North American leg of their tour.
Butler was born in Los Angeles, California and moved to Australia with his family when he was 16. He started his musical career as a “Busking” street musician and, with hard work and determination, has created 10 albums to date and started his own record label called Jarrah Records. The current lineup of JBT has been expanded to a quintet whose members include John Butler (guitar, banjo, lap steel,vocals), Byron Luiters (bass, vocals), Grant (G-Money) Gerathy (drums, vocals), Lozz Benson (percussion, vocals), and Ben Corbett (keyboard, vocals). The John Butler Trio has won multiple music industry awards in Australia since its creation back in 1998 and they have been successful in leveraging that success into serving the community by supporting a variety of non-profit causes that are close to the band.
The night started out with Mama Kin Spender taking the stage and performing “Cold Roof Top” off of their 2017 release Golden Magnetic. Tommy Spender played acoustic guitar while Mama Kin played drums as they performed the selection. The song is a love cry from a forlorn lover who is calling out the name of the object of their desire off a snowy city rooftop. The raw and sparse performance was a great start to their performance. Next up was “Dotted Line,” a protest march anthem that supports the rights of people to have same sex marriages. Spender explained that in Australia, much like in the US, the government was slow to make same sex marriages legal, but that it has now become a legal right to all of its citizens. They also commented on stage that the highly energetic number which needs to be forcefully belted out was a great way for the duo to get there “cardio” in during the show. Next up was the rockabilly number “Bird In Your Tree” which could have been a hit cut at Memphis’ famed Sun Studios back in the ’50s and featured some great guitar work by Spender.
A high point of the performance was when Mama Kin introduced the hypnotic tune “Underground.” Kin explained to the audience that the song was inspired by a special fungus named mycelium that acts as a caretaker of the forest by creating a “wood wide web” that interconnects the roots of a large number and variety of plants; something that Kin feels that as humans we need to work harder at emulating. The duo also performed a personal favorite of Spender’s, a cover of the country-western classic “Long Black Veil” that was executed superbly. The duo finished their opening set playing “Air Between Us” and priming the audience for the arrival of JBT.
After a brief break it was time for the main event as The John Butler Trio started strong with “Wade In The Water.” Benson and Corbett started off the number with percussion leading the band into the new number. During the introduction of the tune, Butler explained to the audience that where they come from it is tradition, while visiting someone else’s territory, to acknowledge the traditional indigenous custodians of the land. Wherever they travel the band shows them respect and to all of the ancestors whose shoulders we stand on. Butler then rocked the lap steel and along with the band, created a primal soundscape that set the mood for the remainder of the performance. Next up, Butler switched over to the banjo and went into the pop friendly “Better Than That” off of 2007’s Grand National. Songs like “Pick Apart,” off of 2012’s Tin Shed Tales, illustrate the cohesiveness of the band and featured first-class solos by both G-Money on drums and Luiters on bass.
Butler is intimate with the audience on stage and describes his live performances as his own type of therapy. Whether it is relating stories of his father’s personal struggles after being injured in a fire and then expressing those feelings into a newly crafted song “Coffee, Methadone, & Cigarettes” or the telling of the story of a chance meeting of a girl in western Australia during a road trip that ends up being the woman he would fall in love with and marry, while introducing JBT’s love song “Betterman“. Butler lets the audience into his world creating an intimate bond with his fans that is palpable in the theater during the performance.
Butlar’s guitar work is also something to see showing a versatility in playing many different types of music like Celtic, Folk, Hard Rock and Reggae. That musical prowess was on full display as, alone on stage, Butler strapped on his 11-string acoustic guitar and played the JBT classic “Oceans.” The intensity of the performance was electric and left the audience on their feet wanting more.
The first encore brought Mama Kin back on stage joining Butler. The couple sang “Losing You” as a duo, which was perhaps the cutest part of the night, with the spouses riffing off one another during the selection. The band closed the night with a shout out to their road crew and then went straight into a funkalicious version of “Zebra” that got the crowd dancing one more time before the house lights came up. The John Butler Trio will continue to tour throughout the summer with dates across North America.
Mama Kin Spender: Cold Roof Top, Dotted Line, Bird In Your Tree, Underground, Long Black Veil, Dig Below, Air Between Us
John Butler Trio: Wade In The Water, Better Than, Tahitian Blue, Betterman, Just Call, Blame It On Me, Coffee Methadone and Cigarettes, What You Want, Pickapart, Ocean, Ragged Mike, Miss Your Love, Don’t Wanna, Livin’ In The City,
Encore: Losing You (Featuring Mama Kin), We Want More, Zebra