Don Stiernberg (l) and Robbie Fulks pause to mug before beginning
their informal Monday night fun
c.2013 K.F. Raizor
To begin, I think it's a misnomer to label this a "concert" review. The show on Monday night (4/8) starring alt-country great Robbie Fulks and mandolin master Don Stiernberg was more of an informal meeting in the living room ("Yeah," Fulks said when Stiernberg made that analogy, "but your living room is carpeted") than a "concert." It was just Robbie, Don, their instruments, and about 25 of their closest friends.
Robbie Fulks, who just turned 50, has generally been missing in action from the national touring circuit for the past couple of years. Since he hasn't had an album since his 2010 Michael Jackson tribute he hasn't really had a reason to do a prolonged tour. (That will change in August with the release of his new album, Gone Away Backward.) That doesn't mean, however, he's been sitting at home doing nothing but collecting royalty checks for cover versions of "Let's Kill Saturday Night." He has created a tradition of playing Monday nights at a tiny Chicago club called the Hideout, where he alternates between playing solo, with his band, and with friends like Stiernberg (who got to know Fulks through the bluegrass band the Special Consensus). Occasionally his wife or kids will show up and perform with him, and the theme nights are a twisted delight (such as a recent show that had Leonard Cohen lyrics performed to the tune of Lynyrd Skynyrd songs, and vice versa).
Stiernberg is a renown jazz mandolinist who is good enough to have played mandolin in a quartet with Jethro Burns in the mid-1980's (and if Jethro thought he was good then you know how great he truly is). He took time out from mixing his latest album to join Fulks for an hour and a half of incredible music.
There simply aren't adequate words to describe Robbie Fulks' guitar work. He delighted the crowd with his exceptional flatpicking as he and Stiernberg leisurely strolled and laughed their way through seventeen songs. At one point Stiernberg half-heartedly apologized for the informality by telling the audience, "If we get too slick for you..."
"Leave the room," Fulks finished.
No way would anyone in their right minds walk out on this. The two took turns at lead vocals, with Don opening on the Bob Wills song "Brain Cloudy Blues" (which later covers named "Milk Cow Blues"). In fact, most of the evening's selections were covers. Only two Fulks originals (three if you count Fulks jokingly singing just the title of his most notorious song, the one about telling Music City to do something anatomically impossible), "Can't Win for Losing You" and the spectacular "Where There's a Road" (which Stiernberg hailed as a "modern classic for bluegrass and newgrass" thanks to Sam Bush's 2006 cover) made the show. That was no problem. Fulks is a walking jukebox/encyclopedia of country and bluegrass history, and delightful covers of Merle Watson's "Southbound," Jim & Jesse's "Are You Missing Me," George Jones' "The Window Up Above," and Jimmy Martin's "Rock Hearts" highlighted the evening. Stiernberg sang lead on "Body and Soul," which he quickly pointed out was the Bill Monroe song, "Lest you think I'm going to turn into Mel Tormé."
Soon Fulks will be back on tour with his band and Stiernberg will be promoting his new album (he already has a show scheduled for April 20th in Chicago with his trio). This was merely a time for two musical buddies and a few friends in the audience to get together and enjoy one another's company.