In his second appearance in St. Louis this year (the other at this summer's Twangfest), Fulks delivered a solid, 16-song set of new songs and classic catalog material demonstrating why he's one of the best songwriters working today.
To call the surroundings intimate at Off Broadway Sunday night would be a major understatement. Lately, club owners seem to be increasingly baffled by trying to gauge the size of the audience for shows around town, and the current playoff run by the St. Louis Cardinals isn't helping. Last night, they came square up against game six of the National League Championship Series in which the St. Louis Cardinals clinched the pennant to head to the World Series.
The beauty of Off Broadway, a treasured St. Louis venue, however, is that it can transform from a rock club with the floor jammed with excited 20-somethings to a folk club with tables and chairs dominated by 50 and 60 year olds in short order. Last night, the set up called for the latter incarnation as both performers dazzled with well-crafted songs and stellar acoustic guitar work.
Songwriter Willy Porter, a guitar player from Milwaukee with as much dexterity and chops as I've ever seen, began the proceedings. He's your friend's dad that is a superb guitar player, but no one on the block (or even your town) knows it. Like a local golf pro, much could be learned from the way he plays.
Porter sang with a warm, smooth baritone voice mixing his fast and furious finger-style guitar playing. His music straddles the line between folk and jazz with lyrics that deliver an Americana sensibility in the vein of John Hiatt. His song "How To Rob A Bank," inspired by having all this shit in your garage you never use, came off as funny whereas his new song "Sandoval's Ghost," is a more ethical version of "Long Black Veil" narrated from a woman's perspective.
Explaining that he grew up around racing with his dad, Porter dedicated his song "Available Life" to race car driver Dan Weldon, who had died in a horrific crash earlier in the day. The real fireworks display arrived next as Porter offered some amazing control over his instrument with the song "Breathe," a guitar player clinic with fingers flying up and down the fretboard.
A highlight of the set appeared when Porter asked the audience to shout out some topics for a song he would make up on the spot. The inevitable shouts of "Cardinals" and "Cubs" flew as even these music fans had baseball on their minds, but also uttered were disparate topics like "buttermilk," "fall weather" and "teaching the next day." Porter weaved all of this and more into a funny song that seemed more serious than insouciant.
An unassuming Robbie Fulks took the stage about twenty minutes to 10 p.m. in his casual outfit of a polo shirt, khakis, and Converse All-Stars topped off with a baseball hat. Fresh from driving across the state from his last gig, he advised he had a suit in the car, but speaking for those who were there we appreciated his music just fine without the snappy dress. He proceeded to open the set with the upbeat weeper, "Tears Only Run One Way," from his first solo album "Country Love Songs."
Fulks advised he will start work on a new album next month and will likely finish it up in the spring and start looking for how to put out the record. With the coming work ahead of him Fulks invariably took this opportunity to showcase some new songs to the audience. Two of the tracks, "Goodbye, Virginia" and "I'll Trade you Money for Wine" turned up on his Internet-only release "50-vc. Doberman," while "Normal People," was dryly dedicated to Missouri the "Hillbilliest State in the Union."
Fulks showed the audience he's no slouch on the guitar by demonstrating his bluegrass chops on numbers "Black Eyed Susie," a tune he first heard in the ‘70s as performed by Jessie Colin Young, and his own "Cigarette State." Prompted by the thought of covers and the low turnout of the evening, Fulks told the audience half-joking, "If any of you make records feel free to plunder my catalog."
After these new songs, Fulks opened the floor to requests and played most everything that got thrown his direction. His perfect country pop of "Georgia Hard" sat next to the wry classics "Mad at a Girl" and "Rock Bottom Pop. 1." By this time he was completely warmed up and seemingly ready to keep playing, but, as he noted, time was working against him.
Without anybody calling for it Fulks ended the set with his country rock stomper "Let's Kill Saturday Night," the song from his catalog that should have ultimately taken him to the next level. Even without a backing band, Fulks needed no encore as he nailed the raucous energy of the track perfectly. He walked off stage like he had just finished a local open mic night except to loud, appreciative applause from those who stayed around to the end.
Both Fulks and Porter, playing alone on their acoustic guitars, more than measured up as artists on Sunday night. For those of us there, however, we're all still scratching our heads as to why more people, baseball fans included, didn't see it.
Robbie Fulks setlist
Tears Only Run One Way
- ? Love me all night - cheating song
- ? Smells like a 20 ton truck of paint thinner - Dwell where I fell
Black Eyed Susie
Goodbye, Good- Lookin'
In Bristol Town One Bright Day (Traditional)
Goodbye, Virginia (new song)
- ? Sunrise up on the city
Normal People (new song)
Long I Ride Little I Gain (new song)
I'll Trade You Money For Wine (new song)
Mad At a Girl
Rock Bottom Pop. 1
Let's Kill Saturday Night
Willy Porter setlist
How to Rob A Bank
Do the Walk
Digging In the Dirt (Peter Gabriel)
- Improvisational Song