Bernard Butler has a reputation for telling his audience just what he thinks of them. So it was no surprise when the former member of the London Suede kicked off his set at the El Rey Theatre on Wednesday by hissing, "Shut up, you idiot," at one overly appreciative, hollering fan.
Judging from this moment, you might think that Butler's music is punkish and petulant, a release valve for a bad attitude. Hardly. After that exchange, the singer-songwriter went on to lightly strum the intricate, subtle songs from his solo debut album, "People Move On," like a mild-mannered folkie.
Tall, ultra-thin, barefoot and alone on stage with his acoustic guitar, he proved to be a terrific player, though his tunes generally felt too familiar, like understated, somewhat atrophied classic rock.
But he certainly packs his share of raging intensity, and the highlights of the show were undeniably strong, soaring and knock-down bittersweet. These moments mainly coincided with lyrics about finding freedom, from the sweet "Stay" to the ornery "Not Alone" and "You Just Know."
The last song is about taking chances, and as he sang the lines "Lover, I don't care if my feet are in the air," you had to think about his seemingly rash decision to leave the London Suede in 1994, just as the English group's popularity was peaking. Even if his voice sometimes lacks real edge or gripping depth, it's this willingness to be vulnerable that makes Butler's best songs truly shine.