John Butler @ Metro Theatre, Sydney (27/04/2012)

It’s rare that an artist of John Butler’s magnitude plays a venue as intimate as Sydney’s Metro Theatre, so tonight’s show was an exceedingly special one. Butler is currently touring his Tin Shed Tales show – an acoustic solo performance spanning his entire discography, with a few new tracks worked into the setlist. The stage is designed to replicate Butler’s own backyard tin shed, complete with photos and other memorabilia on the wall. The packed out floor of the venue was bubbling with anticipation as the headliner’s entrance approached. When the now sans-dreadlocks guitarist emerged from the side of the stage, the crowd erupted. Butler didn’t dawdle, greeting the crowd before immediately launching into Gonna Be a Long Time, a cut from his trio’s 2010 studio album April Uprising. The crowd’s cheers instantaneously dissipated, with the audience instead staring at the stage in captivated silence.

If you’ve seen the John Butler Trio live before, you know that Butler’s music really comes to life in a live setting. Even the direst of the group’s recorded tracks benefit greatly from the energy and improvisation of a live performance. However, a solo acoustic performance from Butler is something else entirely. The man absorbs himself completely in his music, with little crowd interaction during the songs. This isn’t necessarily a negative though, as Butler manages to draw the audience in through the sheer power and beauty of his songwriting. It’s the kind of performance that one would only be able to pull off in an intimate setting such as this one.

Butler has no qualms with pandering to his audience, pulling out crowd favourite Better Than early in the set. Like close to the entirety of the setlist, the track took on a more subdued tone thanks to the lack of a backing band, but this didn’t quash the audience’s enthusiasm. The numerous brand new tracks were also well received. In particular, Kimberley – a song that addresses the current land rights dispute in the Kimberley region over a proposed gas hub – received a rousing reception from the audience.

Butler is known for his engaging onstage banter and storytelling. On this tour though, he proved himself to be even more talkative than usual, introducing each track with a preamble explaining its origin and meaning. These anecdotes were often hilarious, at times moving, and always fascinating to listen to. Interspersed with cuts from Butler’s diverse back-catalogue, these stories kept audience morale at a healthy level throughout the entire performance. The most remarkable yarn was that which precedes Butler’s cover of Irish standard Danny Boy, which he dedicated to his grandfather, who died fighting a bushfire in Western Australia. It’s extremely enlightening to gain an insight into exactly what motivates Butler to infuse his music with such raw emotion.

The only negative aspect of show was the constant chatter from certain sections of the audience. Despite pre-recorded messages discouraging conversation during the performance, as well as direct beratings from Butler himself, some punters still considered their drunken thoughts to be of greater importance than those of the performer. This not only made it hard to focus on both Butler’s music and his banter, but also took away from the intimate atmosphere of the show.

Finishing with the ever-astonishing Ocean, Butler concluded quite possibly one of his most cohesive and engaging performances ever. He is an artist who refuses to settle for the ordinary, instead investing his emotions in every piece of art he produces. Tonight was a showcase of this emotional resonance, and a very successful one at that.