Robbie Fulks – Harmony Bar (Madison, WI)
Chicagoan Robbie Fulks is known for his live shows — a combination of comedy, country covers and inspired hillbilly originals. He and his band barrel through taverns like an out-of-control Freightliner. If his usual live gig gets over the top, it’s safe to say his New Year’s Eve show is over the top of the top.
Custom-built New Year’s shows have become a ritual for Fulks, and the stuff of legend among his fans. These are nights when he bookends two long sets of his vast catalogue on either side of what can only be described as a mini-high school musical — a sequence of original songs, skits, and monologues that harpoon current events of the past year. There are costume changes.
This is the best kind of showcase for Fulks who’s as strong a comic as he is a songwriter, singer and picker. The Fulks four-piece (including Skeletons keyboardist Joe Terry) performed their annual retrospect of the top ten pop hits of 2006 early in the night. It’d be too easy to make fun of commercial tunes such as Beyonce’s Irreplaceable, so Fulks and company played them mostly straight — the purest satire of all.
Rascall Flatts’ Me And My Gang made the list. So did Ridin’ Dirty by Chamillionaire. Fulks performed Justin Timberlake’s 2006 product while wearing a dainty tank top with “Sexy” on the front and “Back” on the rear.
Then Fulks donned a bowtie and a tweed hat, and clamped a pipe in his mouth. His English Fop character became the M.C. for the next 40 minutes — the last 40 minutes of the year. Like an SNL cast in their prime, drummer Gerald Dowd, guitarist Grant Tye and bassist Mike Fredrickson lunged into a medley of original satirical numbers. At one point Tye donned a Scottish sash and Braveheart wig. Fulks sported a “Seinfeld” Kramer wig and the two sang in character as the law firm of Michaels & Gibson.
Just before midnight, Fulks sang his annual Rap of the Dead, an irreverent reprise of those who passed in the last year. It included mention of 95 goners, an insane feat of memorization even without the performance value. Fulks said he test-drove the piece for a Second City audience in Chicago in early December, then practiced and polished it twice a day until New Year’s Eve.
Along with the well known, the rap wove together names of some pretty obscure dead people. A sample:
Dennis Weaver gone, like a puff o’ gunsmoke
But if I know McCloud he’s up there sayin’ howdy
To Stanislaw Lem, Chris Penn and Curt Gowdy
Aaron Spelling left us here below
But you know that he’s cookin’ up a heavenly show
Richard Fleischer directing, Mike Douglas to host
And Shelly Winters on the couch humpin’ a ghost.
While Fulks powered through long sets of his greatest and latest hits, the ballsy New Year’s sequence alone was worth the ticket. It’d be impressive for a songwriter to cook up a set like this to perform over and over again. But this was a one-off, the artistic equivalent of a flyover. Hours of practice, now gone forever.
At the stroke of midnight, the band picked a version of “Auld Lang Syne” and then blasted back to the country music program.
We lost some great musicians in 2006. As Fulks rapped:
Do you like music? Then you’re shit outta luck,
Time’s up for Billy Preston and a Man Called Buck.
It’s a good thing Robbie Fulks is still kickin’.