Protest, Anyone?

JOHN BUTLER TRIO with Mark Wilson and the Way It IS at the Comfort Zone (480 Spadina), Monday (September 16)..

JOHN BUTLER TRIO with Mark Wilson and the Way It IS at the Comfort Zone (480 Spadina), Monday (September 16). $10. 416-870-8000.

Rating: NNNNN

The brewing controversy surrounding Steve Earle’s not-yet-released John Walker’s Blues, a rumination on the American Taliban on his new Jerusalem (E-Squared) disc (due September 24), makes you wonder what happened to all the protest singers.You’d think the so-called war on terrorism, the bombing of Afghanistan and the collateral damage to civil liberties would rankle singing social activists enough to yield at least a few shout-along indictments of the American military-industrial complex.

But as we stand on the verge of getting it on with Iraq, the guitar-strapped conscientious objectors are strangely silent.

Even mercenary mouthpieces like Billy Bragg seem to have been more interested in pushing silly love songs in the year since the 9/11 tragedy than in, say, weighing in on British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s worrying eagerness to follow wherever President Bush leads.

And come to think of it, Bruce Cockburn has been awfully quiet on Canadian foreign policy issues, such as this country’s role in removing foreign heads of state.

Of course, it would be too much to expect aspiring pop celebrities to take a stand on potentially divisive issues and risk alienating fans and corporate allies, not to mention the U.S. government, which could make it difficult to obtain entry visas in the future.

It’s much safer to choose targets so heinous — like, say, land mines in Third World countries — that there’s no real risk of offending any organization that could have a negative impact on the bottom line.

Los Angeles-born, western Australia-raised John Butler knows the score. The ecology-minded skater-dude-turned-slide-guitar-slasher parlayed funky jams about the dangers of uranium mining into a platinum-selling indie breakthrough disc, Three (Jarrah).

The John Butler Trio, who have been playing high-profile support slots this summer for the Dave Matthews Band and John Mayer, are quickly building a tie-dyed audience, likely due more to Butler’s impressively flash 11-string twang technique — equal parts Ben Harper and Jeff Lang — than to his political agenda. Butler seems to be trying to downplay the whole activist thing.

“I don’t see myself as a particularly political or social songwriter,” insists Butler from Seattle, Washington. “I just comment on things that happen around me that I feel passionate about.

“It doesn’t matter whether it’s getting my heart broken or the Australian government continuing to open new uranium mines and polluting the country by promoting an obsolete energy source — if something moves me personally, I’ll write about it.

“When I put information about things like uranium mines in my CD booklet, I’m not trying to tell people what to think. I’m trying to be a part of a positive change. I’ll bet that of the 75,000 people who bought my CD with the map of Australian uranium dumps and nuclear sites, a good 65,000 never knew how many there were.”

Taking issue with a proposed nuclear waste dump site at Roxby Downs in south Australia might not fire up kids in Maryland like it does in Maralinga, but there is nevertheless a certain hip cachet to appearing to be ecologically concerned.

And there’s no real threat of retribution from the Australian government.

“No, not at all. I haven’t had any calls, or any problems from the political parties I’ve spoken about. No tapping of the phones either.

“There’s a beautiful simplicity to the formula we’ve got worked out. You just give people the information and sing about what’s in your heart.”

It’s also a lot less dangerous to speak out about Australian issues in the U.S. than to comment, say, on the John Walker Lindh situation.

“Who’s John Walker Lindh?”


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