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John Butler Trio | Photo: Kane Hibberd
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The Power of Three: The John Butler Trio and the Legendary Trios

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Australia’s John Butler Trio, which plays at CrossroadsKC on Sunday, Sept. 3, has earned a devoted following in the states over the past 15 years with its earthy approach to rock and its road-dog willingness to play anywhere, anytime, and for as long as it takes for songs to take flight and ignite. Still, Butler is not above making a concise statement in his music. Though it has been three years since the Trio’s last album, “Flesh + Blood,” the band has just released the single “Bully,” a righteously angry polemic about what Butler sees as abuses of power in his homeland and abroad.

The new single notwithstanding, the John Butler Trio has become a staple on the jam band scene thanks to some remarkable musical dexterity, on-the-fly inventiveness and the ability to stretch songs without losing the taut ideas at the core.

The John Butler Trio is an anomaly in the jam world in at least three respects. First, lead instrumentalist Butler is largely an acoustic player, employing his virtuosic chops on acoustic guitar, banjo and Dobro on most of the band’s songs. Second, unlike almost all of the biggest names in jam rock (Grateful Dead, Phish, Widespread Panic, The Allman Brothers, etc.), they’re not American. And third, they are — as their name makes plain — a trio. While the more expansive lineups of most major jam bands allow more musicians to communicate with each other in more ways, the John Butler Trio takes a minimalist approach to musical maximalism, locking in on knotty rhythms rather than floating off into the ether.

Ever since four Beatles and five Rolling Stones got together in the early 1960s, most bands have formed as quartets or quintets. But plenty have opted for less. From A-Ha and the Bee Gees to The XX, Yeah Yeah Yeahs and ZZ Top, hundreds of bands have found three to be the magic number. Here’s a non-exhaustive list of some of the best, the most underappreciated and the most peculiar trios of the past 60 years.

The Telepaths: The Bill Evans Trio

Bill Evans recorded dozens of albums before his death at age 51 in 1980, with most credited to The Bill Evans Trio. But The Bill Evans Trio cut only four records, and they’re four of the most exquisite records ever made.

Though Evans achieved renown in 1959 for his sumptuous piano playing on Miles Davis’s era-defining album “Kind of Blue,” the formation that same year of the first Bill Evans Trio would ultimately do even more to cement his legacy. With Scott LaFaro on bass and Paul Motian on drums, the trio recorded four albums in 18 months, with the last two — “Sunday at the Village Vanguard” and “Waltz for Debby” — coming from a single live performance in June 1961. The band set a new standard for intuitive interplay, with LaFaro’s prancing, tumbling bass lines weaving through Evans’s impressionistic chords and Motian’s graceful percussion as though the three could communicate with their minds. Those final two LPs are among the most treasured in jazz, both for the music and as a monument to a moment that passed too quickly. LaFaro would perish in a car accident just ten days after their recording.

Trios of Heroes: Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience

For the first few decades of recorded popular music, the song was the thing. The emphasis was on a pristine and concise package that featured the singer while leaving the other musicians all but anonymous. But in the sea change of the middle 1960s, there arose two new ideas that would help shape the music of the next decade: the extended jam and the guitar hero. And the modern concept of the guitar hero blossomed in December 1966 and August 1967 with the respective debuts of Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience, the first major trios of the rock era. Shrinking the band to three members opened up space for Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix to go off into theretofore uncharted territory. It also gave their rhythm sections (Cream’s Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker and the Experience’s Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell) license to go beyond the beat and fill the songs with flourishes that would have been regarded as unnecessarily busy just a year or two earlier. The heavy power-trio approach would provide the template for a generation of new bands including Blue Cheer and Mountain, and the notion of making technical virtuosity an element of the music itself has been heard ever since, in trios from Rush to Muse.

 

The Ambiguously Numbered Trio: King Crimson

Rock bands are inherently unstable. Few that last are able to persevere without lineup changes, and sometimes that leads to changes in configuration. Power pop legends Big Star recorded three albums in their initial run — the first as a quartet, the second as a trio and the third as (basically) a duo. And though The Replacements were a quartet through most of their shambolic existence, they recorded 1987’s “Pleased to Meet Me” — one of their best albums — as a threesome.

You’d need a flow chart to track the many incarnations of prog-rock titans King Crimson. On their 1969 debut, they were five in number. In the period that included the album “Three Of A Perfect Pair,” they recorded as a quartet. And for much of the 1990s, they existed as a “double trio,” a group consisting of two guitarists, two bassists and two drummers. Given Crimson’s constant fluctuations, it seemed inevitable that the band would spend some time as a trio, even if by accident, and they did for a moment in 1974 when they recorded the album “Red.” Featuring a core of guitarist Robert Fripp, bassist/vocalist John Wetton and drummer Bill Bruford, “Red” is a menacing record, one that reworked and reduced Crimson’s earlier sound into something dense, dark and unrelentingly heavy.

Rock This Way: Run-D.M.C.

“Every time we jam, we break two needles / There’s three of us but we’re not the Beatles.” Say what you will about the historical/numerical accuracy of Run-D.M.C.’s lyrics, but the trio helped to redefine what a self-contained musical unit could look like. With Jam Master Jay spinning beats and riffs for rappers Run and D.M.C., the group took the music of New York City’s streets to the masses with two turntables and a couple of microphones. “Our DJ’s better than all these bands” they declared on “Rock Box,” and it sounded less like a boast than a statement of fact.

The Small Social Circle: The Shaggs

Maybe you don’t know a lot of people. Certainly not a lot with their own instruments. Perhaps just your two sisters. No problem! That’s a band right there.

There seem to be three schools of thought when it comes to The Shaggs: they were either (1) tragically inept; (2) an elaborate put-on; or (3) possessed of a genius that only a select few could hear. The Wiggins sisters — Dot, Helen and Betty — emerged in 1969 with their one and only album, “Philosophy of the World,” and they likely would have remained wholly obscure outside of their native New Hampshire but for Frank Zappa, who in the early 1970s declared the record one of his all-time favorites. Reissued a decade later thanks to the efforts of members of the band NRBQ, “Philosophy of the World” earned status as a classic among a small cult. Whatever you think of the album there’s no denying that it’s . . . memorable.

Kings of the World: The Police and Nirvana

When the Bee Gees became the dominant musical act of the late 1970s, it marked the first time a trio had held such lofty status. But their music relied on a large contingent of auxiliary players. In 1983, when The Police’s album “Synchronicity” twice displaced Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” at the top of the album chart, it marked one of the rare times that a self-contained trio had achieved true superstar status. In early 1992, Nirvana repeated the feat, reaching No. 1 twice by knocking Michael Jackson and Garth Brooks from the lofty perch. Both bands conquered the landscape by leading new generations to the masses. The Police, with their reggae and punk-inflected style, helped the new wave reach the mainstream, and Nirvana’s abrasively catchy tsunami of sound eradicated the pop-metal that had ruled rock radio and led a brigade of alternative rock bands to the biggest stages.

Minimalist Punks: Sleater-Kinney

The inherent leanness of a trio has always lent itself to the DIY spirit of punk rock and its descendants. The Minutemen, Hüsker Dü and Green Day all managed to squeeze maximum chaos and melody out of the simplest guitar/bass/drums configuration with a direct, go-for-the-throat approach. That same spirit has long enlivened Sleater-Kinney, whose kinetic style replaces the bass with a second guitar for a dry and uncompromising sound. You can hear the Bridge’s interview with drummer Janet Weiss here.

—Michael Atchison writes about music for The Bridge. He is the author of three books, including the novel “Mellow Submarine,” which Publishers Weekly calls “a fast-paced delight.” He’s on Twitter at @MichaelAtchison.


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