John Fullbright at The Treehouse in Bainbridge Island, Washington
How would you spend your ideal 24 hours? Mine might involve New Orleans, a po’ boy at Liuzza’s, betting (and winning) on the horses next door, great live music at a Frenchmen Street bar that doesn’t close, a bottomless trough of Pimm’s without the attendant hangover, and Cafe du Monde followed by a long walk down the levee.
Let’s say you got to experience that ideal day and then, two weeks later, were told you could do it all again, with minimal effort. That’s how I felt after catching Jason Isbell and John Fullbright in the Seattle area in the span of just 13 days. Such a binge on songwriting virtuosity could only be topped if the pair formed a power trio with James McMurtry. (Shoot, there’s an idea.)
Monday nights are sleepy in Seattle — sleepier still on Bainbridge Island, a laid-back community that’s 30 minutes from downtown by ferry. The Treehouse, an unassuming pizzeria that’s quietly become one of America’s more pleasant off-the-beaten-path roots-music venues, doesn’t typically host artists on the first day of the workweek. But they made an exception for Fullbright, who was in Washington and Oregon playing a string of concerts at McMenamin’s beer-drinking resorts. The result was a sold-out show, and what a show it was.
Surfacing on The Treehouse’s tiny stage clad in a denim jacket and armed with an acoustic guitar, Fullbright played “Daydreamer,” “Gawd Above,” and “Until You Were Gone” in succession, backed on synthesizer by fellow Oklahoman Daniel Walker, whose Hammond C3 setting subsequently infused the normally subdued “Happy” with some Bull Durham-y ballpark soul. Fullbright preceded that tune with a bit of banter, telling the crowd, “I’m not a sad person. I just write sad songs.”
The baby-faced troubadour mostly sings with his eyes closed, his deep voice growing charmingly scratchy as it veers into its upper register. Fullbright is the rare artist who’s capable of transmitting humor and heartbreak in back-to-back brushstrokes, as he did toward the end of his first set with the pairing of “I Don’t Have Social Skills” and the touching David Halley cover “Rain Just Falls.”
Of the former, Fullbright quipped, “That’s a true story. I wrote that in a bathroom in a hotel somewhere.”
After a brief break, Fullbright and Walker emerged in dueling piano mode, facing each other in front of electrified ivories. Possessing of spectacularly nimble fingers, Fullbright has a habit of noodling between songs, like he’s ad-libbing points of emphasis during a high-energy sermon.
He’s fully capable of sustaining this mood, as he did during the show-closer “Saved,” where he beckoned the crowd to collaborate on the song’s simple chorus. (By the way, Fullbright devotees are to be known as “Fullbright Scholars” from here on out.) But for my money, Fullbright’s at his finest when easing into poignant ballads like “When You’re Here,” “She Knows,” and “The One That Lives Too Far.”
That last tune is about a long-distance relationship that didn’t stick, while the second is an ode to his current girlfriend. After lamenting the sorry state of his wispy beard, Fullbright pointed to her in back and said, “She knows a thing or two about merch, too,” which has to be one of the slier sales pitches I’ve heard in awhile.