Ken Maiuri’s Clubland: Robbie Fulks brings ‘embarrassment of riches’ to Iron Horse
Robbie Fulks gently strums his acoustic guitar, a serene country ballad, and begins singing, his voice sweet and tranquil. “Good morning, little angel / I’ve been waiting all night long.”
But the unfolding story reveals this is the voice of a guy whose all-night wait was actually spent in his ex’s driveway, and though he “didn’t come to cause trouble,” he wants the “new friend” to step outside.
The Iron Horse audience is tittering a little at the unease, the juxtaposition of Fulks’ calm, harmless delivery and the sense of a bad situation about to get worse.
“The one that tore down everything I’d planned,” Fulks’ pretty lullaby-ish melody continues, the spikes starting to poke out of the sugar, “I just want to meet the man.”
“No, that’s nothing in my pocket / just a toy I brought for Jane,” goes the final verse. “I couldn’t stand to see her hurting / now daddy’s here to kill the pain.”
Fulks’ choice of words, winking yet unblinking, caused a burst of laughter in the audience while the song’s time bomb kept ticking. He finally raised his voice, just once at the very end, as his fellow musicians brought the song to a close.
“Aaaaaand relax!” Fulks said to the crowd with a theatrical flourish of his hand.
“Here we are at the big Robbie Fulks show on a Tuesday night,” he announced energetically, which got more laughs: the Iron Horse’s upstairs was empty, unlit and blocked by chairs, while about 60 people sat downstairs, with empty seats near the back.
No matter the size of the audience, Fulks and his band — Shad Cobb on country fiddle, Chris Scruggs on upright bass, and longtime musical buddy Robbie Gjersoe on dobro and resophonic guitar — gave their all, playing 18 songs (and one more for an encore), a completely engrossing and masterful show, one of the year’s best so far.
The first five songs went by in a professional flash, although Fulks’ unique personality glinted through. A yawp of a vocal here, a manic jazzy lead there, and on “Goodbye, Good-Lookin’,” as Scruggs laid down a jaunty walking bassline and Gjersoe punctuated with sly steel guitar licks, Fulks held his hand over each guy when he wanted them to solo.
The quiet Cobb was particularly fiery, playing woozy bluesy runs that landed where you didn’t expect, then swinging into a rockin’ country style as he sawed away with speedy finesse. It looked as though his fiddle was moving his body, not the other way around.
“Well it’s hard to tell what’s on an angel’s mind / but a suitcase means the same thing every time,” went one of the tune’s memorable lyrics. Fulks has an endless trove of those.
I’m no expert on country music (I came to it through my grandfather’s love of “Hee Haw,” which he watched every weekend that he babysat my siblings and me) but the greatest country songs have an unforgettable way with words, craft and delivery going hand-in-hand, summing up emotions with poetic simplicity that sticks with you. Fulks fills his songs with those kind of quotable lines.
“There’s always a way out / where there’s a road.”
“She’s got me at my wit’s end / I can’t wait e_SSRqtil the kissin’ part kicks in”
“Alabama’s grand — the state, not the band.”
That last one came from “Cigarette State,” which ended the main part of the show. Every musician got to take a solo, and I couldn’t take my eyes off Cobb’s fiddle playing during his spotlight. At one point, remembering my reporter’s hat, I felt I should look at the other band members, but they were all staring with big grins at Cobb’s flitting fingers, too.
Fulks’ band was brilliant, with an embarrassment of riches, even though he made a point to note that his fellow musicians (who all play multiple instruments) were purposefully keeping things simple for this tour, to reflect the sound of his latest album, “Gone Away Backward.”
One really got a sense of the four guys’ camaraderie on the road. They took a chance and played Roy Acuff’s ’40s tune “Streamlined Cannonball” because they had fun trying it out during sound check. Fulks’ wrist fluttered like a hummingbird as he fast-picked the heck out of his strings. Scruggs made a train-whistle noise so lifelike, busy members of the waitstaff turned to look at the stage to see who made the sound, and how.
Fulks and his band seemed to love being in Northampton (they’d played New Haven, Conn., the previous night and had amusing comments about their disgustingly dirty motel room) and he made up a ditty on the spot, “Tuesday Night In Olde Northampton,” sung in a high and loud quavering voice, as if delivering a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta:
“Where the Mediterranean restaurants are cheap / and people sell organic cigarettes / to make your lungs feel so sweet / where the hippies play drums all day.”
Fulks played “Let’s Kill Saturday Night,” a song so good, rousing and catchy you’d think it had been a classic radio hit that made him millions of bucks. Unfortunately, not so.
“We’ve got sort of a curfew tonight,” Fulks said, glancing at the stage clock hidden behind a pillar. “I think they got INXS comin’ up next.”
Fulks is so skilled he can be hilarious one moment and then sock you square in the heart the next.
“That’s Where I’m From,” from the new album, was as gripping and well-paced as a classic film. The narrator sang of the better life he’s tried to create for his family and the “worse” one he once had, which nevertheless still sticks with him.
“White collar and a necktie / that’s where I’ve come / half naked in the moonshine / that’s where I’m from.”
The song’s bridge contained just one line, and a soaring one — “If you’ve ever heard Hank Williams sing / brother, you know the whole blessed thing” — and then Fulks ended the final chorus with a stark stanza:
“A long way down a hard road / that’s where I’ve come / someplace I can’t go home to / that’s where I’m from.”
I was so caught up in Fulks’ performance, so stunned by the sad and perfect beauty of the ending, that as the band played a quiet instrumental coda, I found myself choking back tears. Sniffles ricocheted around the room.