John Fullbright at Islington Assembly Hall (London, U.K. – June 5, 2014)
“I’m a young man today, that’s got nothing left to say about tomorrow…” sang John Fullbright as he opened with “Daydreamer” at Islington’s Assembly Hall. Well, I for one, beg to differ…this young Oklahoman has plenty to say about tomorrow, given his growing reputation as one of the most talented singer-songwriters to emerge in the past few years. Just in his mid 20s, he’s been gaining much critical praise — his studio debut From The Ground Up (2012) received a Grammy nomination
His much anticipated follow up Songs featured heavily in tonight’s set list and showed something of a departure from its predecessor. The songs are quieter, more reflective, and the arrangements sparser. From The Ground Up announced Fullbright to the wider music-loving world and Songs consolidates his emergence. I know that Fullbright has studied the work of other highly respected musicians and his song construction. Quite a few of the new ballads are reminiscent of his friend and mentor, the legendary Jimmy Webb. Webb was just a fresh-faced teen when he started writing and Fullbright started writing at a very young age too. Emulating the longevity of Webb’s celebrated career won’t be easy but the quality of Fullbright’s writing, the respect he’s continuing to garner, and the response he’s receiving during live shows means that he’s certainly made an early impression in the right quarters.
Back to the present, though. Singing and playing at full throttle, Fullbright, alone on stage, easily filled the space in this renovated Grade II listed building. It really is an atmospheric venue that has retained many of its original art deco features. Its high stage gives excellent sight lines and tonight it was simply appointed for Fullbright’s solo appearance.
Alone, with acoustic guitar in hand and occasional harmonica around his neck, Fulbright was confident, engaging, and clearly enjoying the wonderfully warm audience response. Cheers went up from the first notes of “Satan and St Paul” — a blues-inflected folk song. Some mean finger picking was evident as too was the straining of every sinew as he belted out the song. He puts his heart and soul into every note, every word and phrase, so much so that you think he’s going to burst with the sheer effort and energy he expends.
Two thirds of the way through the show, Fullbright said that he was going to sing a brand new song and, by that, he meant an unrecorded one. It was another whose lyrics and sentiments had you wondering in amazement at how such a young man can write so maturely and movingly about mourning a loved one:
I’ve known love before
I’ve loved and I’ve been loved
I’ve loved and I’ve lost love…
love burns brightly just like stars up in heaven
to remind us that nobody dies alone…
Then, moving to the piano keyboard for the final part of the set, Fullbright included “Fat Man” — a chilling song based on the poem “Panorama” by Bert Lockwood. It has become an audience favourite even though he observed that it always feels strange when people applaud: “Cut the strings from his fingers, wrap them twice around his throat, show him not your kind mercy…”
Tumultuous applause and a standing ovation ensued as he closed out with “Gawd Above”, but the cheers brought him back for one more — an early blues standard titled “Ain’t Nobody’s Business”. Then, off he went, only to find a long queue of fans waiting for him to sign copies of newly purchased CDs. The smiles on the faces of his fans told the story; you don’t really need me to say that we are already looking forward to his return later this year.
Photo credit: Richard Webb, 2014