It’s been 97 days since John Fullbright’s last Washington, D.C., concert, and I’m finally sitting down to write this review. In fact, he’s back in D.C. tonight at the 9:30 Club opening for Shovels & Rope – and if you’re looking for something to do, I can’t recommend him enough. His album “Songs” is one of the best of the year and the concert was amazing, so late or not, no blog would be complete without this coverage.
Bottom line: The June 16 concert, held in the Hill Country bbq market basement, was phenomenal. It was just Fullbright on piano and sometimes guitar, no band. Actually, I think the real word was “captivating.” He had the audience in the palm of his hand all night.
Fullbright’s two albums have very different feels from one another, so one thing that struck me was that the D.C. concert had the vibe of the older album rather than the one it was actually promoting. 2012’s “From the Ground Up” is Oklahoma country, whereas this year’s “Songs” feels more like a singer-songwriter project – and the Hill Country show was very much a country performance. I asked him about that after the show, and he gestured around the room and said, “I mean, look at the venue!” He had a point: There was a giant Texas flag made of denim behind the stage, dozens of framed Texas Monthly covers adorning the walls, and barsigns for Shiner and Lone Star. That means that Fullbright can tailor the same setlist to whatever the environment and audience calls for – a mark of a highly adept, perceptive, and intelligent performer.
Mike Seely wrote a review last week of a Sturgill Simpson concert, held in a small Washington State city park. Given Simpson’s meteoric rise this year, Seely called the show “Sturgill Simpson’s Last Small Stage.” You might be able to say something similar about Fullbright and Hill Country. He’s on tour with Shovels & Rope – hardly the same as the Zac Brown Band but still legit – and he’s racking up the awards and high-profile appearances, even appearing on Letterman last month. Saving Country Music said “Songs” is worthy of being mentioned alongside Tom Waits and Bob Dylan, proclaiming that “John Fullbright sets the standard by which all other songwriters will be measured by in 2014.” And Lynne Margolis of American Songwriter said wrote, “Neil Young was 24 when he released After the Gold Rush. Joni Mitchell recorded Blue at 27… John Fullbright’s Songs could take its place in that same pantheon of hallowed musical masterpieces.” (When I mentioned the AS review to him after the show, I believe his words were “Fuck that noise.” Gotta love a man able to shrug off the pressure and keep focused on the music and writing that matter most!)
My favorite song was the poignant “When You’re Here.” It’s a true masterpiece, but the song that’s probably gotten the most coverage so far is the first track, “Happy” (the one he sang on Letterman), which flips a lot of country songwriting on its head. Instead of dwelling on a breakup’s sadness and using it to fuel his craft in the stereotypical ways we Americana fans selfishly demand, he says he wants to end the fight with a lover instead of winning it, simply asking, “What’s so bad about happy?” Another one that makes me pause is “She Knows” – its list of things only his lover knows about him makes a fun juxtaposition with Ray Charles’ “You Don’t Know Me,” especially since some of Fullbright’s other melodies remind me just a little of that Charles song.
There aren’t really any anthems here, and other than the whistling on “Happy,” nothing really sticks in your head for hours on end for musical rather than lyrical reasons. But that’s not the point. The lyrics are deep and poignant and make you freeze in place, even for friends who were hearing them for the first time in a live venue. This man really knows how to capture those emotions we all feel at rare but powerful moments in our lives, and pairs the lyrics with exactly the right melodies for them – which is precisely what music should do: Take my hand so we don’t get lost // I spent the coin I used to toss// And never knew what luck would cost// Until I bet it in the end // Never claimed to soar so high// That I forgot that I could fly // If you never knew what never was // You’d never cry again
I met him after the show, and we talked a bit about the state of Nashville today and our shared love for the songwriting of Bruce Robison. Fullbright’s tone was genuine and admiring when he spoke about the Texas country singer/songwriter: “Wow. If there was any justice in this world, that guy would be famous in his own right and a millionaire several times over!” Very true, and Robison is a great influence to have. If Fullbright keeps it up, he’ll find at least the same songwriting success Robison has found with three #1 hits, and hopefully also the on-stage success that we agreed Robison – and now Fullbright – deserves.
4.5 whiskey bottles out of 5 for 2014’s “Songs.” All I can really say is, buy this album, and if Fullbright comes to your town, you should go see him.