Friday, July 20, 2012

Between Satan, St. Paul and St. Louis--John Fullbright at Knuckleheads KC

Last night, John Fullbright played a beautiful show to a packed (albeit small) room at KC's Knuckleheads. Alternating between guitar and keyboard (harmonica with both), he vamped and improvised more than I'd ever seen him do before, which added to the sense of risk that made the show intimate. He played close to a two hour set without even touching a couple of fan favorites, but there was no hint anyone left unsatisfied (emotionally drained is closer to right, but it was energizing as well).

He told a lot of stories, was far more chatty than I've ever seen him, and the audience ate it up.  He told a framing story for the song "Fat Man" that was both touching and funny--it was a deceased friend of a friend's somewhat bizarre only published poem that Fullbright just had to finish as a song (and he had to kill the protagonist in the bargain). He did several gorgeous covers, including one Jimmy Webb and one Fats Waller (oh, and one by fellow Oklahoman Tom Skinner simply because Tom Skinner was playing on the main stage--it fit Fullbright's set like he did it every night).  He ended with one of my favorites off of his new album which I had yet not heard him play live, "Song for a Child."

For what it's worth, "Song" is such an exquisitely delicate and personal conversation written for the singer's nieces and nephews (you could think of Steve Earle's "Little Rock and Roller" as walking a similar line) that people might write it off as sentimental. I think it's one of the finest songs in this young musician's fine body of work.  Following not long after "Daydreamer," both live and on album, it reinforces what politics should flow from that universal human compassion we feel toward children. Of every human, he declares, "You remain a child forevermore." And the song says what that asks of us in our relations with each other.

There were so many fine moments that I want to go on and on, but I probably shouldn't. This is just the beginning of what Fullbright will do on stage.

I will say something about "Satan and St. Paul." After the first verse of the song, Fullbright went into a wordless cry, moaning the melody and harmony counterpoints to the melody (or at least that's how I hear it in my memory). He did this several times throughout the night, creating various tightrope moments.  But for this song, it was essential to getting at the drama of the thing. It was, at once, beautiful and a little scary, like he was walking a very delicate line and being pulled off of it.  He could--almost certainly would--fall wrong either way. That moment set the stage for the struggle between two personalities (in one) that the song is, and the whole song, then, became more shattering than I've ever heard it.

I saw a room full of people who looked the way I felt.

An hour after the show was over, Fullbright was still talking to the last of a long line of people buying his CDs. He'd more than earned the sales, but the first night of several solo weeks on the road, his work was just getting started.

(photo by Vicki Farmer)