Will Butler has long proven he has the charisma to command attention, now he’s showing he also has the talent to front a band.
Arcade Fire’s music has always been grandiose, but they haven’t always been playing arenas. Touring on behalf of his debut solo release, Policy, multi-instrumentalist Will Butler is hitting venues his main band has long since outgrown. Performing mere steps away from his label’s headquarters (and in front of bosses Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance, also of Superchunk), Butler’s Durham, North Carolina, show in many ways represented a homecoming of sorts to a place he’s never lived and has rarely been. Despite the band’s Merge affiliation, Arcade Fire’s last area show was a free one on a town green outside of Chapel Hill in support of Barack Obama’s 2008 election campaign. Still, there seems to be a connection here, and the fact that Butler likely hasn’t even walked past a venue as small as the Pinhook, let alone performed in one, in a long while made the evening feel a little extra special.
Butler’s day job gets taken pretty seriously, and in many ways it seems like this solo trek is a chance to, not just play around, but tone it down. While the Arcade Fire stage can get a bit crowded, on this night there wasn’t so much as a bass player in sight, and his only support came from drummer Miles Arntzen (Antibalas) and the duo of Sara Dobbs and Julie Shore delivering backing vocals and keyboards. Hell, even getting to the stage marked a distinct shift. With no proper dressing room, Butler had to wade through the crowd and, despite his stature, he went largely unnoticed. And I’m pretty sure Butler didn’t set up his own equipment at Madison Square Garden as he did on this night.
That’s not to say Butler wasn’t still his characteristic manic performing self. The fact that Policy is all over the place should come as little surprise to anyone that’s seen him work a stage. Though the record’s reviews have been somewhat mixed, the majority of the tracks thrive in a live setting, mostly propelled by Butler’s infectious energy. With very few stops or pauses, Butler blazed through a 16-song set in just over an hour, sweat dripping throughout. Butler, hair in his face, prowled the stage like a wounded werewolf during the electro-pop kraut of “Anna,” removing his white tuxedo jacket to reveal fake blood at his side, then slowly folding it and draping it over his shoulder. The driving garage rock of “What I Want” and the rumbling, freewheeling “Take My Side” delivered pure momentum, the latter of which would have been an alt-anthem in the early 2000s. Still, it was the Talking Heads’ funk of “Someone’s Coming” that generated the evening’s most electricity, as Butler alternated furious distorted strums up and down his guitar neck (which he also held like a violin) with atonal bangs on the keyboard next to him.
Though Policy is only eight tracks long, Butler managed to round out his set with music that would be considered far from filler. He delivered three of the five songs he penned in a week for The Guardian, the most effective being the swampy “Madonna Can’t Save Me Now” and “You Must Be Kidding,” which came across far more raw than the recorded version and bordered on rockabilly. One puzzling take-away from the evening is how some of the songs left off Policy didn’t make the cut. The LCD Soundsystem keyboards of “Luckiest Sailor” would have been right at home on the record while the pub-folk of “Surrender” isn’t just insanely catchy, it shows just how much vocal range Butler has.
For as much of a presence Butler is, he certainly benefitted from Dobbs and Shore’s harmonies. Their backing vocals lent a near-gospel quality to “Son of God,” while their silly choreography and doo-wop styling made “Witness” somehow more enjoyable than it is on record. Even “Sing to Me,” a piano ballad that initially struggled to overpower the chatter from the bar, became larger and more cinematic once all of the instruments kicked in and the backing “oohs” enveloped Butler as if he were Leonard Cohen.
Will Butler has long proven he has the charisma to command attention, now he’s showing he also has the talent to front a band. Though he could never bring love songs like these to Arcade Fire or be as funny as he is on record and on stage (sample Steve Martin-esque banter: “We’re Will Butler”), he plays his solo material without the slightest hint of pressure. When he and his band returned to the stage for its one and only encore, they performed acoustic and without amplification, making it seem like we were all sitting together around a campfire. Sure, many folks in attendance were likely there to catch someone from Arcade Fire in such a tiny space, but Will Butler also made it seem he was equally be happy to be in the room.