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John Butler Trio: The wait was worth it

John Butler Trio
John Butler Trio
Kane Hibberd

Fifteen years ago, Australia’s John Butler had a simple dream. As he put it, “I wanted to break America.”

It didn’t quite happen, but that’s not a bad thing, because instead of being a flash in the pan or a one-hit wonder, he got something better Stateside: a career.

“The best thing for me in the States is that we didn’t explode, and it’s been great because we built our fan base to such a strong level in the subculture and the undercurrent that now, 15 years later, we’re not has-beens and people are still discovering us,” said Butler, whose John Butler Trio plays the Central Park SummerStage on Tuesday. “So we have this huge fan base and we can sell out Red Rocks on our own and do all these great things, and yet people are still discovering is. I think that’s the best place to be in and I think that’s what I always wanted.”

Red Rocks in Colorado was the touchstone for Butler and company in those early days of touring in the U.S. with the likes of Dave Matthews and John Mayer, with the 39-year-old singer-songwriter saying that one day he would headline there. It’s still the goal of many acts around the globe – to make it here.

“You guys are self-contained and you have so many of the world’s best artists in your country and they don’t even need to leave the country to have a career,” he said. “And all of us on the outside are like ‘hey, we’re just as good.’ So we’ve gone knocking on the door to prove ourselves. Sometimes that’s out of arrogance and sometimes out of respect because you have rock and roll, blues, jazz, hip hop. And because the world is such a big place and America is so hard to tap into because of that amount of great music, it does become a challenge. I think you see how passionate this country is, you see what it’s done for music and art culture around the world and you want to see if they’ll dig what we dig and I want to show them that we’ve got something to offer as well.”

The funny thing is, Butler doesn’t really need to break big over here, though that day looks to be coming sooner rather than later. A platinum-selling artist in his home country, Butler’s latest, Flesh & Blood has already gone gold in Australia and is making moves on the charts here in the States as well. That’s no shocker, as the eclectic collection may very well represent the best effort yet from the veteran roots rocker. Would he agree? Well, he’s happy with the album, but it’s clear that he believes when you say something is your best, that doesn’t leave much room to go further, and he most certainly wants to go further.

“It is the evolution of where we’re at at the moment and the best offering we can have,” he said. “But I’m looking forward to doing even better. I think there’s some really amazing parts (on Flesh & Blood), and what I’ve discovered over the last five years is going back and listening to some early stuff and going ‘there’s this wild naivety to some of it,’ and there’s some real potency to that, especially when you go back and look to the history of all your favorite bands. Their wild, naïve times are sometimes the most powerful aspects of their music. So for me, I think with this album I wanted to go back and grab some of that what I call ‘Experiential musicality,’ this idea that when a song flowers open, then explodes, and then sucks back in. It’s when the music takes over from the lyrics and explains everything the lyrics can’t. And I think we can explore that even more. We haven’t hit the top yet, and that’s exciting.”

New Yorkers will find that out Tuesday night, and if you think this is just another stop on his summer tour, just take a look at the video for the song “Livin’ in the City,” which uses footage from the 1983 documentary “Style Wars” to revisit the Brooklyn and NYC of the late seventies and early eighties.

“I work with this great artist named Tom Walker and he’s done my website and my album art for years and every once in a while he’ll just send me something and say ‘so this is what I reckon you should do,’” said Butler. “He basically watched ‘Style Wars’ and made this video. He was there for the recording of this song and he just put it together. He’s very connected to the music in the sense of where its roots are and where it’s from and what attitude it has, and “Living in the City” was all about it. Its basis is in hip hop with the beats and where we were coming from and the content seemed to make sense. And if you’re going to pick a city, you might as well pick the best one in the world.”

With comments like that, America just might embrace this Butler guy.

He laughs, but when asked if he feels a big breakthrough coming, he says he and his band are already there.

“It is ripe for something really special to happen, but to tell you the honest truth, something special has already happened and I’m stoked about it.”

The John Butler Trio plays the Central Park SummerStage on Tuesday, June 17. For tickets, click here

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