Thursday, January 5, 2012

Concert Review - Robbie Fulks at Fitzgerald's, December 29th, 2011

Didn't 2011 suck? I mean, beyond whatever personal setbacks I might have, it just seemed like every time you opened a paper or turned on the radio, something else was going wrong. Whether it was dangerously violent weather, a new Daley, the rotating clown college of offensive Republican candidates or the fact that our government's single achievement was choosing not to destroy our own credit rating, there just wasn't much succor to be found this year. (And don't even get me started on Adam Dunn or the Cutler injury.)

So what does one do at the end of a year as monumentally soul-depleting as 2011? The same thing we do every year, go see Robbie Fulks.

You see, every year, Robbie, his band, his wife and few other friends put on a "Year In Review" show at Fitzgerald's, a friendly suburban restaurant/performance bar in Berwyn. It's a full band country rock concert interspersed with audience trivia games, humorous skits and musical numbers based on the year's events and any other tomfoolery the band might feel like engaging in. It's a glorious institution - fun, informal, raucous and incredibly well-executed.

This year Robbie went without the traditional opening set by the Long Gone Lonesome Boys but that just meant that by the time he took the stage the crowd was already drunk and even more ready for live music than usual. He opened promisingly with "Goodbye, Cruel Girl" a no-frills, woman-done-me-wrong number.  But the second number, "That's A Good Enough Reason" was what really kicked things off. Robbie's a virtuoso of amazing dexterity and talent on an acoustic guitar and, as he always does, he gave "Reason" an extended acoustic intro. Starting with a simple tune, his picking got increasingly complex until eventually I was left just laughing at the playful audacity of his performance. By the time the rest of the band joined in an Robbie put on his best insouciant growl for lyrics about "wearing tight blue jeans", he had the crowd helplessly enraptured.

Of course he probably didn't need to do too much crowd work on this night as Fitzgerald's was filled with Robbie regulars, most of whom seemed to have been to his year-end show before. The average age had to be solidly in the late 30's, if not higher, but the energy level surpassed many wall-hugging indie crowd fifteen years younger. Beer poured, couples danced and Robbie and the boys delivered a joyful combination of power chords and pedal steel, lust and longing with just the right mixture of sincere devotion and corny humor.

Halfway through the set, after boozy singalong version of "Cocktails", the singer unstrapped his guitar and began the evening's other entertainment. Here Robbie recruited every member of his band as well as his wife, Donna and a few of her theatrical friends for a impressively written, well-acted and incredibly funny set of skits, songs, contests sending up and sending off 2011. There was a running gag about with his drummer over whether there would be time for old character "Gerald, The Science-Loving Cowboy" (there was). Also featured, an impressive Rahm Emmanuel impersonation and a woman wearing suggestively placed pizza and soda cups while singing "You're A Bad One, Mr. Cain". Fulks and his keyboardist learned the top 10 songs of the year and picked Your Narrator's girlfriend from the crowd to try to name them all (even she missed the American Idol tune). The finale was a Broadway-style musical number whose refrain, fittingly enough was "'11 wasn't messing around!"

The show was, as always, performed with the perfect blend of impressive commitment to writing and acting mixed with just the right amount of charming amateurishness and held together with Fulks' sharp wit and voracious intelligence. It mixed the wit of a great club show with the intimacy of a family gathering. In fact, the only slight disappointment was when Robbie announced that this year there would be no "Rap of the Dead". To be fair, he did another credible white boy rap about the north suburbs called "North Shore Ain't Bullshitting" which had more than a few sidesplitting lines. But anyone whose witnessed Robbie riffing of notable deaths of the past year for eight minutes knows that there is no substitute. May it return in 2012.

Picking up for the second half of the set, you might think that the band's acting aside would have killed momentum or drained energy. You would wrong.

The audience, perhaps unusually energetic due to the lack of an opener to work up a buzz to, perhaps just feeding off the good vibes, threw themselves into the songs with even greater zeal than earlier as if trying to make the room's collective energy stretch the show out as long as possible. Bassist Mike Hendrickson sung his original "Wouldn't It Be Wonderful" which, propelled by pummeling floor toms and his Everly Brothers-esque duet with Robbie, was one of the evening's highlights. Not to be topped, Robbie gave us another six string acoustic showcase with "I Wana Be Mama'd" and closed things out with the so-simple-it's-genius heartland anthem "Let's Kill Saturday Night".

As soon as the last D chord stopped ringing, it was clear that Fitzgerald's would be getting an encore and the band obliged with "Donna On My Mind" and the "Marie Provost"-aping favorite off of Country Love Songs, "She Took A Lot Of Pills (And Died)". But this offering wasn't enough, and even as the house lights starting to tentatively go up, Fitzgerald's demanded more. Fulks came out to "Shake Rattle and Roll" which kept everyone moving before saying to the rest of the band something like "guess we'll have to play some of our wedding stuff". The aging Gen-Xers (and yours truly) went nuts when he launched into the Violent Femmes' "Blister In The Sun", shouting along to the chorus, then, finally exhausted themselves dancing to a loose and happy version of "I Saw Her Standing There".

Chicago is lucky to have an artist like Robbie Fulks to entertain us. For $15 a ticket, he certainly doesn't have to spend a month and a half writing sketches and raps. He doesn't have to invent games and bring prizes for his audience and her certainly doesn't have to surround something like that with a rip-snortin' full band country rock concert. But every year he does it. He does it because it's fun, he does it because he can and I'll bet he does it because everyone in the show seems to have just as much, if not more fun than those of us who get to watch it. It's a unique experience at once polished and friendly, where the second you walk in, you feel like you've been let into this incredible secret club that's just dying to have you as a member.

Every year seems to go by faster and leave us with harder questions and fewer rewards than we want. The whole concept of "the year in review" tends to exacerbate this as we focus on the tragedies and often fail to register the moments of joy that sustain us. Fortunately, each year, Robbie Fulks is there to clean up, share a beer, have a laugh and remind everyone that as long as were smiling with friends and family, we're doing OK. It's a rare treat, so catch it while you can. I'll even spot you the fifteen bucks.

Goodbye, Cruel Girl
That's A Good Enough Reason
All You Can Cheat
Mad At A Girl
Parallel Bars
Cocktails [Bill Anderson]
Georgia Hard
I Push Right Over
Busy Not Crying
Wouldn't It Be Wonderful (Sung By Bill Hendrickson)
I Wanna Be Mama'd [Jimmie Logsdon]
Rock Bottom, Pop. 1
Let's Kill Saturday Night

Donna On My Mind [Billy Barton]
She Took A Lot Of Pills (And Died)

Second Encore
Shake, Rattle & Roll [Big Joe Turner]
Blister In The Sun [Violent Femmes]
I Saw Her Standing There [The Beatles]

Download Some Robbie Fulks!
Mad At A Girl   Buy Couples In Trouble
Cocktails  Buy 13 Hillbilly Giants
Good Enough Reason  Buy Revenge!

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