Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Firing on All Cylinders

Category:  Concert Review 

There's good news, bad news, and great news about Robbie Fulks.

The good news is he has a new album in the can, titled Upland Stories.  The bad news is that it won't be released until the first quarter of 2016.

The great news, however, is that Fulks has been playing a few new songs on sporadic tour stops.  One of those stops was Friday (8/28) at Nashville's legendary Station Inn, where he and his band fired on all cylinders for nearly two hours of hot music, superb picking, and -- as is usually the case with Robbie Fulks -- good humor. 

Sharing the stage with Fulks were seven-time IBMA bassist of the year Missy Raines, her Helen Highwater String Band partner Shad Cobb on fiddle, and legendary (as in, played with Jethro Burns) wizard Don Stiernberg on mandolin.  As he usually does, Fulks made certain to highlight each band member.  Cobb sang lead on a song he wrote, "Fiddle and Bow," and Stiernberg sang lead on "Roving Gambler" and "I'm Head Over Heels in Love."  Raines provided background vocals for "Never Could," Fulks' song from his "much maligned" (his description) Couples in Trouble album.  

Shad Cobb (l) waiting to play behind
Robbie Fulks at the Station Inn.
c. 2015 K.F. Raizor

Fulks' songs are the stars of the show, however.  Granted, it's hard to concentrate on brilliant lyrics such as his comical "they say the Norfolk girls are fair and they all sing right on key, but I went down and I never found one who sang as good as me" (from "Long I Ride") while Cobb is sawing his fiddle in half, but the music-sensitive audience (including mandolin legend Roland White) caught the jokes in songs such as "I Just Want to Meet the Man" and laughed heartily.  

The three new songs that Fulks previewed from Upland Stories give every indication that the album will be a superb follow-up to his widely acclaimed 2013 Gone Away Backward.  Two of the songs were lighthearted in nature.  "Aunt Peg's New Old Man" is about his sole meeting (in the 70's) with his banjo-playing great-great aunt, who, after years of being a widow, remarried.  Her new husband was a fiddler, and the two (as Robbie detailed in the introduction to the song) "ganged up" on him as a 10-year-old aspiring banjo player to tell him his Scruggs-style playing was horrible.  "The Old Times Have Made a Wreck of Our Lives" was inspired by a jam session that Fulks sat in on before writing the song.  He said the musicians in the jam session seemed to be taking things far too seriously, so he skewered the notion of competition in something that should be fun in this song.  Lines such as "the fiddler just stares in the distance marking time till his liver explodes" indicate in a comical way the negativity he felt in this experience.

The best of the three, however, is "Fare Thee Well, Carolina Gals."  This stands a chance of being the new album's centerpiece.  It combines the not-so-wistful reminiscing of youth of "That's Where I'm From" with the caustic attitude of the protagonist of "I'll Trade You Money for Wine" (both from the last album).  The song, Fulks said, was inspired by attending his 35th year high school reunion ("big mistake" he quipped).  The lyrics meander through teenage years ("I made a medium to poor boyfriend and pretty good house painter") and first sexual experience ("that was lovemaking and it made me shout") and end in the present, with the narrator taking John Osborne's play title Look Back in Anger to heart, promising to "sell the farm after mama dies, get a Cadillac and just ride till the Pacific meets the bumper" but realizing "I'd be lucky to get a clunker."  There aren't sufficient words to describe the cinematic and literary beauty of this song, and it's not a stretch to say that Fulks has outdone himself with this gem.

And that's saying something, considering this is the man who gave us "She Took a Lot of Pills (and Died)," "Where There's a Road," "Long I Ride," "The Buck Starts Here," and "Let's Kill Saturday Night," all of which he performed in the show.

Fulks' tour dates throughout the remainder of the month will primarily focus on a two-man show with Merle Haggard guitarist Redd Volkaert, with a few bluegrass (or, as he puts it on his web site, "b***grass") shows thrown in.  If you need to whet your appetite for his forthcoming album, or just need to watch a great guitarist, singer, and songwriter, go see him.

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