Robbie Fulks – Phoenix Theatre/Horseshoe Tavern (Toronto, Ontario)
It was close to 2 a.m., and just as Robbie Fulks was returning to the Horseshoe stage for the second encore of his second set of the night, a fan in the crowd caught the singer’s attention.
“Hey, Robbie”, the devotee bawled. “Don’t go New Country on us!”
Fulks squinted into the smoky club, and without another word, strummed his acoustic guitar and warbled a naggingly familiar melody. His crack backing trio immediately joined in on what evolved into a half-baked take on Garth Brooks’ version of “Baton Rouge”.
Relax. The song collapsed into a fit of giggles, and the ghost of Garth was quickly banished with a sly reading of “What The Lord Hath Wrought”, followed by a double-barreled blast of “Papa Was A Steel Headed Man”.
The latter was delivered with such verve that it was easy to forget Fulks and company started the night five hours earlier, opening for Ben Folds Five across town at the Phoenix Theatre. After barnstorming through a brash 45-minute set for Folds’ youngish pop audience and receiving a generous welcome, Fulks’ crew packed up, raced over to the Horseshoe and raged for an astonishing two hour-plus tour through his two Bloodshot albums, with a preview of some tantalizing new material from his planned Geffen debut and a few choice covers (Garth excluded).
It’s a strategy Fulks has been following through the tour: Piggyback on Folds early-evening and create a buzz, then preach to the choir at a headlining showcase later in the night. The earlier show was appropriately brash and loud, favoring peppier material like “Rock Bottom, Pop. 1”, “Dirty-Mouth Flo” and “Cigarette State”. As fine and fun as that set was, things really cooked when Fulks got before his own fans at the Horseshoe.
Opening with the straightforward troika of “I’d Be Lonesome”, Tim Carroll’s “Every Kind Of Music But Country” and the unreleased “Sleeping On The Job Of Love”, the quartet then shifted to a higher gear for a seething version of “Cold Statesville Ground”. Drummer Dan Massey expertly guided the group from deathly dirge to manic shuffle, while Fulks and guitarist Rob Gjersoe squared off for a thrilling guitar dual. Strung around his hulking basketball-ready frame, Fulks’ axe looks like a ukulele, and despite his “how-does-this-thing-work” face-pulling, his bluegrass pedigree showed in a brace of nimble-fingered solos.
With Fulks’ high, ringing voice showing no obvious strain from double-duty, he delivered both sides of the boy-girl duet “We’ll Burn Together”, led the band in an impromptu impression of the Ben Folds Five, then called for requests and obliged with “She Took A Lot Of Pills And Died” and a shining “Tears Only Run One Way”.
The haunting boozer’s mea culpa, “Barely Human”, silenced the crowd chatter, but the real show-stoppers were a pair of new Fulks compositions. “God Isn’t Real”, knowingly patterned after the Louvin Brothers classic “Satan Is Real”, takes a scalpel to organized religion. “Ask the starving millions under Stalin’s reign/Ask the child with cancer, who eases their pain,” Fulks sang. Maybe he’s kidding, but something tells me the joke will be lost in the Bible Belt.
The other standout new song, “Let’s Kill Saturday Night”, has already been drafted as the title for a Five Chinese Brothers LP, but that shouldn’t discourage Fulks from giving the song a place of honor on his upcoming Geffen debut. Brimming with the kind of dead-end romance familiar from Bruce Springsteen’s early, finest work, it’s a nervy move away from rudimentary country and an indelible hit.
Like that fan at the Horseshoe who worried aloud about Fulks’ future, there’s anxiety amongst his followers that as he makes the major-label jump, something will be lost in the translation. But they shouldn’t worry. He’s too skilled a writer, too winning a performer and too fine a bandleader.
And it can’t hurt that his papa was a steel-headed man.