Okay…I’ll admit that I’d never heard of Jonathan Butler before his performance at the Grand Arena on Friday night, but my dad’s a fan and I was quite excited to broaden my musical landscapes. The arena was packed with folk dressed in their evening best, and the anticipation in the air was electric.
The Cape Music Institute opened the show with the school’s confident young-guns showcasing their exceptional talent. It’s great to see young people honing in on a craft they are so clearly passionate about, and the respect they harbour for Butler was touchingly evident.
When the man himself walked onto the stage and greeted us with “Hoe’s it, julle?” the crowd went wild. I had no idea that the man (who recently blew out 50 candles on his birthday cake) had such a massive fan base. But anyone who’s heard of the jazz veteran and Grammy nominee is aware of the fact that he is a critically acclaimed guitarist, pianist and vocalist, and the crowd was in his thrall from the moment he started plucking at his acoustic guitar.
Although the auditorium was packed, Butler succeeded in creating an intimacy that is rare at similar-sized turn outs. It could be because he calls the crowd, ‘his people’. Or because he jokingly refers to his earliest tracks as ‘bubble-gum music’… that put his kids through college so he wasn’t complaining. Easy laughs echoed off the walls throughout the evening and for an audience revelling in the fact that this LA-based star had grown up on their home turf it felt like a family reunion.
A pianist, a drummer, a percussionist, a double-bassist and a small group of vocalists accompanied Butler; and song after song the crowd swayed, clapped and shuffled their feet, grins plastered across their faces. I was taken in by Butler’s throaty, soulful voice – kinda like that first sip of whisky after a long day at the office. It hits you, and then it’s all good.
The Q&A session was an original idea, and it actually did work. I enjoyed hearing Butler talk about his experiences overseas, about his 29 years of marriage, his faith and journey with God, and his kids. The risk of doing a Q&A session of course is that you always get a few nuts in the fruit basket. And sure enough someone asked if ol’ Jonny remembered his great-granny who used to live on 6th Street forty years ago. No jokes. Everyone was having such a good time that it’s hard to find fault with the fact that the show went way past bed-time, but had it been kept a little shorter it might have packed more punch.
If you did miss it, buy an album. You’ll love the way songs like Take Good Care of Me and Falling in Love with Jesus break your heart. Having lived abroad for a time myself, I know the feeling of gratitude and awe that fills a person on seeing Table Mountain for the first time after a long absence, and Butler’s new song Cape Town touched us all deeply. I think I may have even spotted a few tears here and there.
What’s so special about Jonathan Butler is that he captures the South African spirit so distinctively in his sound and he has a canny knack for putting the depths of human experience into words we can all relate to. In retrospect, I can’t believe I had never heard of him. This is a man whose music should be found in every South African household.
Jonathan Butler performed at Grand West’s Grand Arena 4 November 2011.