Robbie Fulks: wild, pro, high-end country-punk
January 14, 2006
I've seen Robbie Fulks play a couple times now and have heard his songs and CDs a bunch. He's a tall, rangy fellow. Seems kinda normal when you first see him. But then he just goes nuts on stage. He plays hard-rockin' hillbilly music that looks like it's almost breaking the instruments and his body apart. It's like he thinks he's in the Red Hot Chili Peppers. He's got the styley moves. And a big, strong, clean power voice. And the tightest band ever.
I just saw him again last night. Two good local alt-country bands opened for him. Then the bands went to the front of the crowd to watch Robbie and his band. See, they all have the same 3 guitars and drums and they all play loud and hard, so what's going on here? It's like a schooling. There are other band people and musicians and record store owners throughout the audience. So how can one band have like 5 times the impact of other bands? It's amazing to see. Robbie and his band are pros. They're from Chicago. They play the big venues, have done the Grand Old Opry, made a buncha records and been on tons more. They're tight and really, really good. As in they can all play their instruments really really well. They do intense jazz/rock/bluegrass solos at will in their songs. Their timing is intense. They can drop into a huge power tune in a wink, perfectly. They can send a wall of sound, a hurricane of hard-driving country right at ya to make ya dance or get knocked back. It's kind of alarming. It's like going down to the bar to see a top arena band playing at their peak. Robbie puts on a true blue show. There were only 100 people there but his gang played like they were a power-pop band rocking a stadium, only, you know, with quality and talent.
He does his own great stuff, but like any true hillbilly freak, he covers and modifies the greats, too. ...Including Michael Jackson's "Billy Jean" and Abba's "Dancing Queen." He's a true entertainer with almost disturbing diversity and virtuosity. He reads the crowd and venue and pulls your leg so fast you don't see it coming. He tells jokes, does impersonations. He's even edgy. Yet when he's not on stage, he's quiet and relaxed and looks like a farm kid who spent the day throwing bales.
I always like seeing torsion in artists. Probably a perfect pro would cover it up, but those who play big billings once a month then spend the other gigs in dives maybe feel the strain more than usual. It's "C'mon, let's go!" then "What am I doing here? Again? Aaaiieee!"
His own songs highlight conflict, doom, irony. He likes funny-crazy country punning with an edge. Like the one about the gal who took him home then before she went any further she asked if he loved her for her body or her heart...so what did he do? "I LIED! I LIED!" Or the one about the wild girl who was so hot and scary. What happened to her? "She took a lot of pills and DIED DIED." Then there's the sweet sad song about the Orphan Train. Or the bully who beats up everyone in his town, a town called Rock Bottom, population 1. Good hard-driving honkytonk subjects all.
Robbie seems willing to interact with his fans on his website, unlike some much smaller artists I know. I like diversity and range, too: they don't call em "writers" in country for nuthin. (It's just that Nashville trashes the concept so badly.) He's had a longrunning webcolumn "My Worst Gig."
Maybe the funniest/saddest thing about Robbie is his love-hate deal with Nashville. He's a big talent in every way: singin, playin, writin, band-leadin, essayin, road-warrin. Yet in 4 years workin that town he never got a bite. It seems obvious to me that he just couldn't form his lips around the necessary "Yes" as Jack Saunders says (relating someone else's idea---ee cummings?) He wasn't a true believer. But he wanted to make it, he has a HUGE head. So he's built his own career, on his own. He's worked with the indies instead. He writes slick, pro tunes---sharp, witty, rich tunes---full of jabs at Nashville and full of the torment of failure. And they'll by God never let him in. Jack's story applies to Robbie in spades. It's the flea with a hard-on hollering to raise the bridge. Except that indy music is far, far more viable than lit at this point. Robbie does it for a living, if a hardscrabble one. Actually, it seems to be above that level, but it's still a ton-a work. Thankfully he doesn't just go his own way but keeps up the noise about "that town." It needs to be done and I'm glad Robbie is willing to endure the embarrassment of it.
His CD "13 Hillbilly Giants" is really good, with "Cocktails (Tore Up My Family)" being a favorite tune of mine. (Click on the image to order thru OYB on Amazon.)
But watch out, in a show he's liable to stage-dive on your head if you're not careful. And they say he's one of the best guitar players in the whole country. And darn he can sing. He can do it all, sing high, sing low, fast or loud. It's always pure, whatever it is. He's got bigtime talent and chops all around. It's like *bang* let's get this place rockin'.
He's been playing for decades, touring everywhere with everyone. He plays the Grand Ole Opry plenty. He's smart, funny, crazy and smart-alecky, too. He gets pissed. He said he'd be happy to come back and play Lansing but "Never at [this one club] again! Terrible sound! Here, check it out [plays] --hear that? Ouch!" He's a road-trippin fool based out of Chicago and will hop in the van with his fellow pro maniacs and play anywhere that pays. He does a bunch of things with the seminal country-punk label BloodShot, which we also love (especially their 5-Year Compilation CD set).
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