LIVE: Robbie Fulks @ Caffe Lena, 3/3/19

Review by Steven Stock
Photograph by Glenn Kaplowitz

Robbie Fulks is becoming a regular visitor to Greater Nippertown, with two visits to the Linda and one to Amsterdam’s Riverlink Park last year. For his excursion to Caffe Lena earlier this month, the 55-year-old singer/songwriter/guitarist was accompanied only by fiddler Shad Cobb. It was a loose, informal set, with Fulks’ hilarious intros sometimes lasting almost as long as the subsequent tunes.

Perhaps the most striking thing about this set was the range of his songwriting expertise. It’s no surprise that Fulks is damn good: his 2016 Upland Stories (“loosely inspired by James Agee and Walker Evans’ trip down to Alabama in 1936,” noted Fulks) won a Grammy nomination for Best Folk Album in 2017. What is surprising is the way Fulks moves from the inspired shtick of “Seventies Jesus,” a novelty song in the tradition of Shel Silverstein and Kinky Friedman, to the somber gravity of “Alabama at Night,” a vignette worthy of Raymond Carver.

Usually it’s easy to tell whether Fulks is serious or not, but late in the set he broke out “I Just Want to Meet the Man,” a harrowing first-person recital from a spurned husband stalking his ex, their child and his replacement. The canny misdirection of the opening couplet, offset by the starkness of the subsequent declarations, prompted some uneasy laughs early in the performance, but soon it became clear that Fulks was playing this one straight. There was nothing sympathetic about this narrator, but for a brief moment Fulks made us see the world through his eyes.

“Busy Not Crying” provided another telling example of Fulks’ artistry. The lyrics are downcast and forlorn, but Fulks sings and strums his guitar with such gusto that you can’t help thinking that the ostensibly heartbroken narrator will be just fine in the end.

Goodbye Virginia
Long I Ride
The Buck Starts Here
Tears Only Run One Way
Seventies Jesus
Alabama at Night
Sarah Jane
Aunt Peg’s New Old Man
Banjo in the Holler
Fare Thee Well Carolina Gals
I Just Lived a Country Song
Let’s Kill Saturday Night
Busy Not Crying
Cigarette State
Snake Chapman’s Tune
I Just Want to Meet the Man
Katy Kay

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