John Fullbright – Kings Place (London, September 5th 2014)
Kings Place contains the first new public concert hall to be built in central London since the completion of the Barbican in the early 1980s. It opened in 2008 and houses two halls specifically designed for live music performances. The larger of the two rooms was the backdrop for John Fullbright’s latest visit to the city and, much to his obvious delight, upon the stage stood a Steinway Concert Grand piano. In live performances, he typically alternates between guitar and piano (with occasional harmonica) but tonight he concentrated the first half of the set on piano-led songs, and who could blame him?
After starting off with “Jericho” from his Grammy nominated studio debut From The Ground Up, he expressed thanks and said it was good to be back. He’s certainly been clocking up the air miles in the last year or two as he’s flitted across the Atlantic, touring in support of his studio debut and the more recent follow up Songs. Fullbright has been garnering great reviews, a good deal of media exposure, and had, just a few days beforehand, appeared on one of America’s longest running late night talk shows (The Late Show with David Letterman) during which he performed “Happy”. Tonight he explained that he’d written it as a joke. I gather that it was his response to the premise that songwriters need to trawl the depths of sadness and despair in order to write a memorable song.
Fullbright’s songs are indeed memorable, whether rooted in personal reflections (as many on Songs are), or delivering piercing commentary on religion (From The Ground Up has more than a smattering of religious imagery in the material), or focusing on character-led narratives such as “Fat Man” and “High Road”.
His own writing has evolved as he has paid attention to the manner in which great lyricists have constructed songs. I know he’s a huge fan of (amongst others) Jimmy Webb, Randy Newman, and Townes Van Zandt. Tonight he paid tribute to Webb by covering “If You See Me Getting Smaller” and also to Hoyt Axton, another songwriter he holds in high regard, playing Axton’s “Jealous Man”.
Fullbright included two new unrecorded songs in his set — “Stars” and “Poster Child”. The former was written after he had played at a memorial service and is a touching tribute to those we have loved and lost. The latter was introduced with a request for the audience to sing along and we duly obliged.
Having seen him on a fair few occasions, tonight’s venue didn’t do justice to Fullbright’s brand of music. Although the hall is beautifully constructed, it is something of a wooden box, and whilst the wood absorbed the sound nicely, the room lacked the atmosphere and energy usually associated with his live shows. As much as I like to be comfortable, seated venues just don’t have the same vitality as standing venues, and the dynamic between performer and audience just didn’t “click” as well tonight. I think that he felt it too as, at one point, he said something along the lines of “let me know if you like something, it’s pretty lonely up here”. It wasn’t that the response was unenthusiastic, however it was somewhat reserved and there wasn’t the usual bouncing back of energy between performer and audience that I’ve come to associate with Fullbright’s shows.
That said, Fulbright’s delivery brings the imagery in his writing to vivid life. His vocals range from quiet and tender to loud and powerful. He’s an extraordinary talent and I’ve been privileged to see him develop from shy teenager singing mostly cover songs to young man “growing comfortably into his own skin”. He’s well worthy of all the accolades he’s receiving and I have no doubt that Songs will feature in many “best of” lists at the year end. It will certainly be in mine!
(Photo by Vicki Farmer; from an earlier performance.)