Butch Walker and Friends Live at the Murphy in Chicago (August 1, 2013)
A Beer Snob's Take on the Bud Light 50/50/1 Concert Series
As much as I grossly dislike Bud Light (and most of the people who think it’s a “good beer, bro!”), the concept behind the 50/50/1 concert was a pretty great one. In case you haven’t seen the myriad TV commercials that have been advertising the concert series in recent weeks, here’s a short primer: using QR codes and smart phones, Bud Light set up a big music contest with a wide range of prizes, from downloads to Live Nation concert cash to free headphones. The top prize—at least in my mind, probably not in the eyes of people who listen exclusively to top 40 radio—were tickets to one of the 50 (or I guess 51, because California for some reason got two) shows that played out across the country last night. The line-up and concert map were both pretty killer, bringing out both current buzz acts (Kendrick Lamar played Detroit, Miguel was one of the California artists, etc.) and seasoned club show veterans (Gaslight Anthem got Vermont, Jimmy Eat World took the Damage tour to Missouri, The Hold Steady were sequestered in Wyoming, etc.) But as fate would have it, the show I was most interested in getting tickets for was the one in the state I just relocated to: Butch Walker and friends, burning down Chicago.
Despite my best efforts, I had no luck winning a pair of tickets for this concert through the regular contest regulations. Short of doing something drastic—like actually paying for a case of Bud Light—getting enough QR codes to land a pair of tickets proved to be a reasonable challenge. I got my fair share of free downloads and Live Nation cash, but by the time my Facebook account got mad at me and stopped letting me win, I was no closer to the Butch Walker Chicago show than I had been when I started. Then yesterday, as I opened up my computer after lunch, my moment arrived. Butch had just sent out a tweet offering free tickets to the first 20 people to reply. In the two minutes since the tweet had hit the net, a dozen or so fans had already responded. I quickly put my name on the list, won a ticket, and re-arranged my schedule. A drive into the city, three separate bouts with road construction, and a hefty parking garage fee later (seriously, why the hell would anyone ever want to live in this state?) and I was waiting outside a place called the Murphy for my favorite guy in all of music to let us in.
In all of the concerts I’ve been to, I’ve never seen anything quite like this. First of all, the Murphy is not the kind of small, sweaty club or dingy dive bar that Butch usually plays. With a gorgeous stained glass window towering above the stage, flanked on either side by a pair of majestic white-washed pillars, this place looked more like a church than a rock ‘n’ roll venue. Google the Murphy, and you’ll find that the location is typically known as a venue for wedding receptions; no wonder no one knew where to find the building or what to expect when we got there. (“What the hell is this place?” Butch would ask later.) To add to the swanky atmosphere, there were sharply-dresser waiters wandering the concert floor and guys with tables full of pop, water, and beer waiting to assist guests as they walked through the door. On the plus side, all beverages were already paid for; on the negative side, the only beer option was Bud Light. “Well, um...I’ll have a Coke then.”
After making friends with a few Butch die-hards about two or three rows off the stage, we were treated to a solid opening set by Daniel Wade, an acoustic troubadour who supposedly won his opportunity to play this show through another social media contest on Butch’s Facebook. Wade was a nicely low-key opener, and his style of stripped-down, go-it-alone acoustic folk-rock fit with the mood of the evening. In the meantime, the Bud Light 50/50/1 concept was in the process of failing miserably, mostly because a lot of people who had actually won the tickets through the contest had evidently decided not to bother showing up. (Maybe because people who drink Bud Light don’t listen to good music; I stereotype, it’s faster.) Apparently Butch was pretty pissed about it too, because at 10:00, when he was supposed to go onstage, he sent bassist Jake Sinclair out to announce that he wasn’t playing the fucking show, man. Just kidding: Jake said that, since the turn-out hadn’t been too stellar, they were going to open the show to the public and that we should all invite our friends to come on down. Meanwhile, Butch was tweeting all of this from backstage, probably while downing shots of Jameson and fuming about how Bud Light hadn’t let him give away more tickets to real fans earlier.
All of this amounted to Butch taking the stage at 10:30, a half hour later than he had initially planned. Since the show needed to be over by midnight, that meant Butch’s usual 2-hour setlist was going to be truncated a bit. I don’t know if this was the fault of Chicago and curfew regulations or Bud Light and some standard “finish” time that had been laid for the entire 50/50/1 concert series, but suffice to say that I’m not too fond of either entity. Regardless of the time constraints though, Butch delivered completely, and gave newcomers and die-hard fans alike a prototypical post-Sycamore Meadows Butch Walker concert experience. Taking the stage alone for his now-customary opening solo set, Butch winded his way through a pair of emotionally bombastic piano ballads (“Passed Your Place” and “Joan”) before trading the keys for a sleek white electric guitar and a brand new song ("Peachtree Battles") that will supposedly be on his next release. The song was beautiful and nostalgic, a remembrance of small-town streets and young love, and it kicked my expectations for the new album into even higher gear. The way Butch can achieve pin-drop ambiance during a solo performance is truly unparalleled, and it was fully on display at the Murphy, even with a smaller-than-average crowd and a handful of listeners who were probably only on hand to drink.
Fan favorites “Don’t Move”—my personal top Butch Walker song—and “Going Back/Going Home”—with a tongue-in-cheek rap section that sums up Butch’s entire career in less than two minutes—were next on the docket, and the powerful sing-alongs they engendered had me wishing that the entire show could just be Butch solo, switching back and forth between new songs and old favorites. Of course, that was a pipe dream: the opening chords of the Springsteenian “Closer to the Truth and Further from the Sky” brought Butch’s band—Jake Sinclair and a drummer whose name I didn’t catch—onstage, and moments later, the venue was filled with electricity and noise. If anyone’s ears weren’t already ringing by that point, they certainly would be now.
The rest of the set essentially followed the rubric that Butch used for his similarly celebratory New Year’s Eve show (which also took place in Chicago). Live standards from Butch’s last few records with the Black Widows (his shifting array of backing musicians) provided the set’s backbone, from the vaudevillian Beatles pop of “Pretty Melody” to the southern rock rave-up that is “She Likes Hair Bands,” from the eighties-pop throwback of “Synthesizers” (complete with a now-customary “Come On, Eileen” snippet) to the raucous rock ‘n’ roll of main set closer, “Summer of ’89.” In between, we got a few more new songs (and did I hear that Butch was only planning on releasing an EP this fall?!!), including the audience-participation anthem,“I’ve Been Waiting for This,” and the rousing “Just Let It Go Where It’s Supposed To,” a touching folk-rock tribute to Butch’s ailing father, and one of the best songs he’s written in years.
There were a few surprises in store for old fans though. Shovels & Rope, a guy/girl country music duo made up of Michael Trent, one of Butch’s songwriting partners, and Carrie Ann Hearst, Trent’s wife, arrived for the dusk-folk gen that was “Closest Thing to You I’m Gonna Find,” and stuck around providing back-up vocals for the remainder of the main set. They even got an opportunity to sing “Birmingham,” the key track from O’ Be Joyful, their underappreciated debut album from last year. The duo’s arrival explained the “Butch Walker and Friends” tag on the ticket, and it was nice to see Trent and Sinclair, former bandmates from glam-rock group (and former Butch Walker opener), The Films, back together again. Despite the commercialized nature of the Bud Light concert series, Butch did this show entirely in his own way, and it never felt like the promotional aspects of the event clouded the power of the music.
I saw my first Butch Walker concert (and my first concert ever) on the 100+ degree evening of August 1, 2006. As I entered the Murphy on Thursday night for my eighth Butch Walker concert, it had been seven years to the day since that first night, and in that time, a lot has changed. I’ve gone from 15 to 22, for one thing. My music tastes have shifted and changed in ways that I never thought they would. I finished high school, finished college, got a job (sort of). And Butch put out three more records (four if you count the 2008 album from the 1969 side project), moving from glam rock to classic folk to alt-country to no-nonsense rock ‘n’ roll and back again. Band members have come and gone, songs have entered and exited the setlist, hell, Butch even got onstage at the Grammys a few years ago to play some songs with Taylor Swift and Stevie Nicks. But as Butch wrapped up the show on Thursday night, with a hair-metal-infused new song (“End of the World”) and a particularly unhinged take on an old one (“3 Kids in Brooklyn”), it could have been that night in 2006 all over again. Whether you judge shows by energy, emotion, song choice, sequencing, longevity, crowd participation, or some combination of the above, Butch Walker has always delivered in the club show environment like no one else, and that held true for the show at the Murphy last night, ticketing snafus, piss beer, and weeknight curfews aside. He says he’ll be back in November? I’ll be back too.
1. Passed Your Place, Saw Your Car, Thought of You
3. Peachtree Battles
4. Don't Move
5. Going Back/Going Home
6. Closer to the Truth and Further From the Sky
7. Pretty Melody
8. Just Let It Go Where It's Supposed To
9. Closest Thing to You I'm Gonna Find
10. I've Been Waiting for This
11. Birmingham (Shovels & Rope)
13. She Likes Hair Bands
14. Summer of '89