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Monday, Jan. 13, 2014

Robbie Fulks @ Shank Hall

Jan. 11, 2014

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Robbie Fulks has gotten some lyrical mileage out of his disdain for the country music corporate machine’s general artistic bankruptcy. But if he’s copacetic with the kind of intimate singer-to-fan relationship he experienced last Saturday at Shank Hall, it’s Nashville’s loss for not embracing such a progressively traditional firebrand as Fulks. Too bad for Nash Vegas, but the healthy crowd gathered in the venue Fulks deemed “a speck of a place, but a heck of a place” and the four players on its stage all seemed to have had a great time taking in and making music that at once harkened to the roots of the genre in question while also taking it to experimental boundaries that make more aesthetic sense than the ’70s-’80s soft rock and ’00s hip-hop influences its commercial radio permutation has taken in recent years.

Fulks’ opening song, “The Grass Is Really Greener” addressed the discrepancy between his vision for country and that of the major label establishment, and he gleaned plenty of material from his masterful 2013 album, Gone Away Backward throughout his two sets, but not at the expense of delving into a catalog going back to the mid ’90s. That breadth allowed him to regale his audience with personal anecdotes.

The self-deprecating/self-affirming “Check Out The Career!” directly addresses any doubts Fulks may have had about his choice of profession after a somewhat dispiriting experience speaking at a high school career day at his children’s suburban Chicago high school. It’s doubtful the 16-year-old punkette who derisively asked him what he’ll be doing for work once he turns 60 (he’s currently 50) could grasp the discursive, Django Reinhard-meets-John Fahey musical direction in which his ode to a sexually controversial Hungarian-British anti-Communist crusader—“Arthur Koestler’s Eyes”—is composed. In her defense, though, she might be able to get behind the rage-against-ennui fueling in what may be Fulks’ signature song, “Let’s Kill Saturday Night,” which he and his unplugged band assayed with at least as much gusto as the electrified version on his only major-label album 16 years ago.

Fulks himself expressed appreciation for Milwaukee throughout the night, citing the greatness of such acts as the Violent Femmes’ Gordon Gano, Sigmund Snopek, The Spanic Boys, and Mosleys alum Mike Fredrickson, a song of whose he augmented and played as well. If Fulks’ songs about people falling victim to circumstances beyond their control are largely out of favor under the current Nash Vegas regime, perhaps his wit could yet net him Grand Ole Opry membership. His tale of how his mother took to alternative religions “like an otter to water” and her subsequent stay in the tent-populated compound of a speaker at a Unitarian-Universalist meeting house could be the template for the strangest of Lifetime movies. And the possibly improvised song with which his band ended the night—about how no one in the audience will be sleeping with anyone on stage—is the sort of absurdity one isn’t likely to hear concluding a Blake Shelton concert. For his part, Fulks is uniquely keeping alive the spirit of the “old farts” Shelton last year took heat for disparaging. Thank goodness for younger such farts as Fulks.