Will Butler’s having a year. What that year is remains a tad unclear, but it’s apparent that the Arcade Fire multi-instrumentalist and Academy Award-nominated composer is figuring that out. But he’s having fun in the process. Which leads us to last night’s semi-impromptu gig at The Hideout Chicago, where he cracked open a sleepy Monday night bill featuring locals Ghastly Menace and The Western alongside Boston’s Croquet.
Mind you, Butler will be spending Tuesday and Wednesday night at the nearby United Center.
Forget all that, though, because for 30 minutes, Butler wasn’t a component of the world’s biggest indie rock band. He wasn’t the other half responsible for the incredible score to Her. No, he was just a songwriter working things out with his guitar, an amp, and a crowd of, maybe, 60 people. Maybe.
“Good evening,” Butler heaved. “My name is Will Butler. Thank you for coming out tonight.” He looked behind him. “To the Hideout.” That odd, quirky introduction felt so Kaufman, so breathless, so chaotic, as if the guy hasn’t walked a straight line in months — and he probably hasn’t. He takes part in this year’s greatest arena rock show, and between new covers and hours-long performances, a trip down to Earth probably feels a little discombobulating.
But also necessary.
Musically, he’s in the early stages of conception. The time when singer-songwriters have the ideas, the themes, and the skeleton of songs … only they’re still in the bedroom state. Those familiar with Arcade Fire will no doubt recognize Butler’s current crop of solo material. His voice has become synonymous with the group — literally sharing DNA with Win — so when he crooned through his six crunchy love songs, the echoes of the past joined the 60 souls.
He’s pretty angry, though. “If you’re gonna shame me, say my name,” he spits on “Son of God”. “If I could fly, you know I’d beat the shit out of birds,” he seethes on the rockabilly tussle of “Take My Side”. This isn’t the scrappy boy Butler that paraded around the stage 10 years ago with cymbals during the Funeral era. This wasn’t even the reserved artist waiting for the deserved Oscar earlier this year. This was an exorcism of something unknown.
That something is what made the short preview so unique and intriguing. It also lead to several questions: Why now? What’s he aiming to do here? Will these ever become Arcade Fire songs? What’s he so angry about? Does he hate the Academy like I do? No idea, but that’s not the point. There is no point. His set last night was like the First Friday at the Museum of Contemporary Arts in Chicago — a night where you’re not really taking in the art, but observing it. So is he.
The set ended with “I Don’t Know”, a bratty number that has him screaming, “I don’t know what I can do” with the conviction of a 17-year-old teenager. That’s a good thing. In the past, uncertainty, the unknown, and the undecided has proven quite disastrous for many, but very rarely for those in art. Right now, those elements are the vices for what he calls a “Will Butler production.” They’re the best thing going for him. Well, aside from being in a Grammy-winning rock band and touring stadiums all over the world.
Again, he’s having a year.
What I Want
Son of God
Take My Side
I Don’t Know