Rock Roundup

Why Robbie Fulks Matters

The “insurgent country” artist can confuse audiences. But he’s edgy, funny, and good.

By - Apr 6th, 2015 01:47 pm
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Robbie Fulks. Photo by Dino Stamatopoulos.

Robbie Fulks. Photo by Dino Stamatopoulos.

Top Show: Robbie Fulks at Shank Hall, Friday, April 10

I have seen Robbie Fulks confuse a Summerfest crowd with an on-point version of AC/DC’s “Girls Got Rhythm” because he looked, even more than usual, like Ron Howard wearing a baseball cap. I have heard, on his 2007 live record Revenge!, a comparatively “in” crowd having trouble weighing the ratio of mockery to earnestness during his cover of Cher’s “Believe.”

Unfortunately, I have never seen or heard the guy get a substantial taste of the popularity achieved by a few acts—Jayhawks, Wilco, Ryan Adams—associated with the alt-country outpouring of the 1990s. As a Chicago resident, he’s firmly in the “insurgent country” camp, and a man who could travel to Nashville and come back with this (highly NSFW) gem–

–deserves more than a few toasts raised to his dishonor.

Fulks has detoured in ways that haven’t necessarily helped him: for example, after two albums for the insurgent-country Chicago label Bloodshot in the mid-1990s, he signed with Geffen and made Let’s Kill Saturday Night, a wide-ranging and slick LP that was probably meant to display his range but came off, to his fanbase in particular, as a sell-out.

In any event, it didn’t sell, and subsequently his wishes to widen his artistic horizons have come out in such forms as a 50-song collection available via his website, the aforementioned Cher cover, and 2010’s Happy: Robbie Fulks Plays the Music of Michael Jackson.

His last album to date, 2013’s Gone Away Backward, is as good a country record as anything else he’s put to tape, and its heritage sounds as if it goes back much further than alternative country’s beginnings. In concert, though, he will be nobody’s purist.

 

Tuesday, April 7: Foxygen at Turner Hall Ballroom

Across its 82-minute, double-LP running time, …And Star Power, the 2014 album from Foxygen several times comes close to falling to pieces and then falls back together, as if core members Sam France and Jonathan Rado can’t decide whether their favorite 1970s album is the Rolling Stones’ messy Exile on Main Street or Carole King’s carefully stitched Tapestry.

Onstage for what has been announced as its farewell tour, Foxygen currently has a nine-person lineup—including three backing singers and two guitarists—that, from reports thus far, goes past the band’s reputation for wild stage performances and into an attempt at the feel of a soul-revue extravaganza. Even if Foxygen falters and falls, it’ll be entertaining.

 

Saturday, April 11: Twin Shadow at Turner Hall Ballroom

It’s possible that the most important difference between a completely mainstream pop artiste like Usher and an ambitious man from indie like George Lewis, Jr., a.k.a. Twin Shadow, is that the latter’s quest for love and response to heartbreak require less drinking at the club and a lot less hang time with potential one-night stands.

It’s more likely that the most important difference between them, especially on the recent evidence of Twin Shadow’s third album, Eclipse, is that Lewis frames his passion—and fascination with pop from the 1980s and 1990s—in ways that serve the songs and emotions long before he thinks of the marketplace. He approaches the mainstream with some kind of integrity.

 

Saturday, April 11: Reptar at Cactus Club

Athens, Georgia has been home to pop and rock groups as diverse as the B-52’s, R.E.M. and Drive-By Truckers, and I would suggest the key thing those bands have in common, with each other and with other groups in that locale, is a sense of accessible fun. Georgia probably isn’t the best place to be too hip.

Reptar therefore belongs and adds to a praiseworthy semi-tradition in Athens. Just two albums in—the second is this year’s wonderful Lurid Glow—the band has already locked into a light-footed version of the nerdy eclecticism that Talking Heads did so well. Reptar updates the earlier group’s anxiety for the internet age and maintains pop-rock hooks for all ages.

 

Saturday, April 11: Jamey Johnson at Rave

Jamey Johnson didn’t reject popular modern country music in the manner Robbie Fulks (see above) did. Each of them went to Nashville; only Johnson managed to luck into some kind of recognizable success, co-writing hits for guys like George Strait and directly singing a few of his own hits, including 2008’s “In Color.”

Yet, as if paying for the sin of co-writing “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk,” the Alabama man has sunk himself deep in C&W roots: his last album, 2012’s Living for a Song, paid tribute to Hank Cochran and enlisted outlaws like Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, and new material like “Alabama Pines” doesn’t even need the geographical reference to confirm Johnson’s bona fides.

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