Robbie Fulks’ 40th Birthday Party – Martyrs (Chicago, IL)
Robbie Fulks is a decorated country star, admired bluegrass picker, international male model pictured in the pages of GQ, presiding officer of the Greater Chicagoland Michael Jackson Fan Club — and now, living proof that geezerhood happens to the best of us.
Yes, the hillbilly giant turned 40 on March 25, but he did not go quietly into that good night. Instead, Fulks threw a public birthday bash and invited a few friends to play some songs. Though rumored appearances by Ryan Adams and Robbie’s IRS auditor proved apocryphal, the likes of Shellac, Buddy Miller, and the birthday boy himself made for one of the most adventurous and talented lineups to grace a Chicago club stage in recent memory.
Fiddler Liz Carroll and guitarist Jim DeWan opened with a set of mostly traditional Irish jigs and reels, as well as a couple of DeWan’s own tunes: “You Wouldn’t Do That To Me”, which Robbie recorded on his 1997 album South Mouth (DeWan announced it has produced $49.27 in royalties), and the timely “On The Occasion Of The 40th Anniversary Of The Birth Of Robbie Fulks”.
Next up was Steve Albini’s abrasive post-punk trio Shellac, who were introduced by Robbie’s kindly mother-in-law, Sharon. Shellac traffics in timing, noise, and bile, and this set, delivered with martial precision and at paint-peeling volume, was characteristic. On “Canada”, Albini grappled with his guitar, squeezing out fractured howls and thrashing like the axe was a live wire. “Squirrel Song” saw him leaping and snarling with utter inhibition.
There was something pure and liberating about the unadulterated rage in those songs and the leavening humor in others (“Wingwalker”). Bob Weston’s brutal, chest-rattling bass dominated “My Black Ass”, and drummer Todd Trainor put on a clinic, making his minimal kit sound like a marching platoon or a sinkful of dishes crashing through plate glass.
The birthday boy and his band then took the stage, opening with Kid Rock’s “Cocky” (starring Fulks in floppy hat and giant “40” medallion, spitting rewritten lyrics such as “I’m from the hills of North Carolina/I like bluegrass music, Pall Malls and vagina”), the tonked-up “Can’t Win For Losing You”, and a rollicking “Let’s Kill Saturday Night.”
Fulks offered another tune written for the occasion — the lewd, hilarious “Lordy, I’m 40” — and debuted a new duet, “Take You Home And Make You Like Me”, with his wife Donna. That began a parade of guests: The Skeletons sat in on “The Scrapple Song”, then rendered George Jones’ “Who Shot Sam”; Opry legend Gail Davies dazzled with a note-perfect vocal on “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still In Love With You)”; and, at Fulks’ invitation, his many ex-bandmates in attendance swapped in and out during “Nickels And Dimes”, “I Want To Be Mama’d”, and an extended jam on “Rocket In My Pocket”.
Next up was the Heatersons, a Peoria pop foursome that didn’t let the energy level flag. Led by mop-topped Scott Ligon and reunited just for the occasion, they delivered a fun-loving set of goofball pop a la Herman’s Hermits.
The crowd had thinned considerably by the time the final act took the stage, but those who lasted got a top-notch set of swampy country-soul from Buddy Miller. Backed by a crack rhythm section, the prodigiously talented guitarist, singer and songwriter played elemental electric blues (“Midnight And Lonesome”), first-rate weepers (Jesse Winchester’s “A Showman’s Life”), and roadhouse rock (“Love Match”).