With the release of his band’s major label debut, “Sunrise Over Sea” (Lava), and high-profile gigs playing at Bonnaroo and opening for Dave Matthews this summer, Australian guitarist-songwriter John Butler’s being positioned as one of jam-rock’s new golden boys. He mostly deserves it. His songs — lazy, reggae-influenced grooves with choruses that stick immediately — follow the mold of Ben Harper and Jack Johnson. But Butler brings to the table a band willing to go on wild excursions mid-song, something Harper’s only recently started exploring.
Butler sometimes lets his instrumental prowess get the best of him, walking when he could be running and losing his breath when he sprints. And he’s in desperate need of some editing all around (his 11-song-set ran just under two hours, before encores, mostly thanks to interminable space-rock intros).
But his formidable playing more than makes up for his inefficiency. That’s never more obvious than on “Ocean,” a lengthy, solo acoustic instrumental he introduced as an exploration of his Celtic roots. Butler’s arranged the songs in sections, starting slow before accompanying himself in wandering guitar parts that eventually replicate Celtic music’s traditional fiddle arrangements.
Butler’s intensity shines through in this song — devoid of the sometimes-too-earnest lyrics that make up his trio work, his instrumental skills get the attention they deserve.
Butler’s got an unfortunate knack for stating the arcane (the song he introduced as about “the two most important females in my life: my wife and my daughter” contains the lyric “no longer the cup half empty/you and your mom in front of me”), but that’s just an extension of hippie-dippy jam-band traditions. Given time, it’s obvious he can escape that if he wants to. For now, he’s just getting started.