My photos of the final three shows in Robbie Fulks’ seven-year-long series of Monday-night concerts at the Hideout. (Read my blog post about the finale of Fulks’ epic residency.)
In January 2010, Chicago’s Hideout announced that singer-songwriter-guitarist Robbie Fulks was going to play a series of four concerts at this cozy little nightclub. He was on the schedule for every Monday night in February. On Twitter, I commented: “Cool!”
Little did I know what I was in for.
As it turned out, Fulks’ “residency” lasted way longer than one month. He just kept on playing at the Hideout on one Monday after another, bringing talented guest artists onto the stage with him and playing shows with a startlingly wide range of themes. Fulks is known as an alt-country singer, but these concerts showed just how varied his musical interests are — along with the old-fashioned country songs you’d expect, Fulks and his ever-changing cohort covered everything from Thelonious Monk and Stephen Sondheim to Liz Phair, Harry Nilsson, Bob Dylan and Cheap Trick. And man, was it glorious.
In November 2010, Fulks said his residency “will be continuing next year and in fact indefinitely.” As the years rolled on, you could count on seeing Fulks play at the Hideout on Monday evenings. He wasn’t there every single Monday, of course — he took off a week here and there, and was absent for some stretches or a month or longer while he was out on tour. But more often than not, you could just show up at the Hideout around 7 p.m. on Monday and pay the $10 suggested donation to see Fulks. (With only a couple of exceptions, no advance tickets were available.)
These shows were one of Chicago’s musical treasures. But after seven years — and 250 gigs — Fulks played the final show of his epic Monday-night Hideout residency this week. (I may be guilty of overusing the word “epic,” but in this case, it seems entirely appropriate.)
In a post on his blog — written with his typical eloquence and erudition — Fulks reflected on why he undertook this residency and some of the things he accomplished:
I started it because I wanted a place to try out new ideas, some of which were offbeat and none of which I could see coming much in advance, at a place that was laidback and non-prominent enough that a loose and not always highly performative approach could be accepted. …
Here are some things I was able to do under the circumstances, things I hadn’t done before: play Prokofiev; sit quietly for a minute between songs, tuning and thinking; play Charlie Parker; tell 10-minute off-the-cuff stories; try out tunes on clawhammer banjo, ukulele, bass, mandolin, fiddle, and other instruments not native to me; play a 15-minute noise-drone improvisation; reharmonize songs by Bob Dylan, Wayne Shorter, and the Monkees, among many others; listen hard for the first time to people like Leonard Cohen, Danny Elfman, Stephen Sondheim, Blake Babies, Sonny Boy Williamson, Arthur Russell, Ty Segall, and Donna Summer; transcribe Doc Watson’s version of “Beaumont Rag”; collaborate with Michael Shannon; jam with Jason Adasciewicz; take off my pants in front of a paying audience; back up Liz Carroll in time signatures such as 9/8; use guitar pedals like Plimsoul overdrive and something called “Freeze sound retainer” which is truly wonderful and flummoxes both accompanists and house sound people; improvise country underscoring beneath country storytelling; play Jimi Hendrix. Some of this I do regret. However, I see now that I deeply regretted aspirational actions like playing the bass guitar on “Who’s Gonna Mow Your Grass,” or trying to comp an unknown Gershwin piece at high tempo, in the moments I was doing it, then let it go immediately afterward. This marks clear progress for me from the days when I’d forget a lyric or do something stupid in public and then experience burning blood to the face when the memory arose months or years after. The little humiliations were so ongoing for me during this series that I normalized them and was able to get over myself, at last, here at age 53.
You saw *how* many concerts?!?
That adventurous spirit helps explain why Fulks’ shows on Monday nights were so enjoyable. By my tally, I attended 58 of these concerts. (It might actually be a few more than that.) Other fans were there almost every week, including a couple of tapers who preserved audio of the performances for their own private collections. Ed Steffy, who says he attended all but two of Fulks’ 250 Monday-night shows, is the bearded fellow who was always sitting near the stage with an impressive-looking stack of audio gear. At the final show this week, Fulks asked Steffy what he’s going to do with the hundreds of hours he recorded. “I’m going to make a million dollars bootlegging,” Steffy joked. In fact, Steffy handed out free copies of a CD compiling 17 of his favorite songs from the seven years — and his “rough” mixes sound absolutely delightful. Could we get an actual live record out of this? (Hint, hint…)
My friend Heather Copeland was there practically every week, too — holding up her little camera to record video of just about every song. She has posted hundreds of these videos on YouTube, and it’s well worth your time to sample those. (I’ve included links to several of the videos in this post.) Fulks gratefully gives her credit for helping preserve his performances, though he occasionally mentions that he’d rather not see certain moments displayed for everyone to see on the internet.
For the first three years, Heather kept a list of every song Fulks and his cohort played at the shows she attended — coming up with a tally of 1,069 different titles. Most of these are songs that Fulks and his guests played only one time. Around 170 songs were repeated once or twice. The grand total number of songs Fulks played over the course of the seven years is well over 1,000, considering that he played hundreds of additional songs in the four years missing from Heather’s list.
A different show each time
Now, if you’ve told me back in 2010 that I was going to see Robbie Fulks some 60 times over the next seven years, I would have scoffed. (And yes, I actually saw several Fulks concerts at other venues over this seven-year stretch.) Obviously, I’m a fan of Fulks’ music — he’s not just a great singer and songwriter, but also a whiz on the guitar and an entertaining raconteur — but who really needs to see any musician that many times? However, it quickly became clear that Fulks was playing a different show each time. And not just tweaking his set list here and there. Only a few of the shows he played during the seven years were strictly focused on his own songs — the kind of show you’d normally expect at something billed as “a Robbie Fulks concert.”
Instead, he used his regular spot on the Hideout’s schedule to showcase other musicians and stretch his own repertoire by playing with them. I missed the very first night of the residency in 2010 — when Fulks played with his stalwart sideman Robbie Gjersoe — but I was there for the second week, February 8, 2010, when his guest was the great Nora O’Connor.
Here’s what I wrote at the time:
The two sat on chairs and played acoustic guitars, with Fulks’ fingers plucking fast runs of bluegrass notes while O’Connor played rhythm chords. O’Connor’s no slouch on guitar, as evidenced by her playing in the Blacks, but she was modest about her abilities Monday. At one point, when Fulks said, “Take it, Nora!” she responded with a sarcastic, “Please!”
Fulks and O’Connor played some old-timey bluegrass and gospel tunes, such as “The Lost Indian” and Flatt and Scruggs’ “Take Me in Your Lifeboat.” Of course, they played some of their own songs as well — a couple of recent Fulks songs and a couple of oldies, plus some of the best tracks off O’Connor’s excellent (and thus far only) solo record, 2004’s Til the Dawn. And some cool covers: Fulks taking the lead on George Jones’ “The Flame In My Heart,” and O’Connor singing M. Ward’s “Helicopter,” Fleetwood Mac’s “That’s Alright” and Ketty Lester’s “Love Letters.” In between songs, Fulks was as funny as ever with his stage banter. As Fulks remarked, how can you go wrong with two people playing acoustic guitars and singing?
Watching as they learn songs
That evening set the template for many shows that followed: a few pals casually playing songs together, including tunes they know very well — plus songs they’re just figuring out how to play. With talented and skilled musicians, that kind of performance hits a sweet spot: You can hear them testing themselves and exploring the notes. You can see them reacting to what they’re hearing from the other folks onstage.
I talked with Fulks about this when I interviewed him on January 18, for a Pioneer Press article about his first-time-ever Grammy nominations. (Alas, he didn’t win!) Here’s a bit of our conversation:
Q: What do you mean by the idea of rehearsal?
Fulks: If you have a one-time-only show, but it has a lot of curves in it, a lot of things that you need to go over, like, how do you efficiently go over that with five or six people? And that’s been interesting to sort through. In the old days, I would have had one or two rehearsals within the week of the show. And then later, I would kind of run minimal parts of the show at 5 that afternoon — an hour or two before doors — and just kind of race through it. And when you see the results of the one thing, a thorough-going rehearsal, versus the results of the other, you start to think, ‘Well, maybe you don’t need to rehearse at all.’ You know? Because it’s not that different. The results aren’t that different. So I’ve tried some shows without rehearsing at all. (Laughs.) I tried everything in between. And I’ve learned that there’s not a consistently reliable way to do it — so that the results will be, you know, error-free. But less is probably better.
Q: Well, I was going to say, one of the things I enjoy most about your Monday-night shows is that you often have you and some other musicians playing together, who obviously haven’t played the songs a zillion times — they don’t know them that well — but you’re good enough musicians that you can figure out things by ear, and if you make a little mistake, it’s not that noticeable. So that sort of “well played but not over-rehearsed” quality is what I find so appealing about it.
Fulks: Well, that’s almost always the case, what you just said. There was one memorable train wreck, where there was a half-step modulation in a song. And one guy, the guy that was leading the modulation, modulated a whole rather than half a step, and then he just stuck to his guns and played the whole rest of the song in that key, and just threw the whole thing — nobody knew what to do, and it kind of exploded. And then there was last Monday, where the show ended and somebody called the song, and it was one that I thought I knew but didn’t know. And again, I just wrecked it for everyone. And it was the last song of the night, and people gave me some shit as I walked through the crowd afterward. (Laugh.)
Q: What was the song?
Fulks: “Cherokee Shuffle.” It’s a song that every flat-picker knows very well. And I thought I knew. But I got it confused with another fiddle tune.
I missed that particular performance — but that sort of train-wreck moment is a key to why these shows were so great. By daring to fail, Fulks and the other musicians sometimes achieved almost transcendental beauty. Sure, they failed occasionally — very occasionally — but even those few off-key notes or flubbed lyrics were interesting or humorous.
A community of musicians
Over the past seven years, Fulks’ most frequent guests included O’Connor, mandolinist Don Stiernberg, the Hoyle Brothers, Eric Noden, Steve Dawson, Steve Frisbie, Justin Roberts, Jenny Scheinman, Greg Cahill of Special Consensus, Jon Langford and Kelly Hogan. (Video of Fulks and Hogan singing “You’re The Reason Our Kids Are Ugly,” a song by Lola Jean Dillion & L.E. White made famous by Loretta Lynn & Conway Twitty.)
Gjersoe probably played with Fulks more than anyone else, including duo shows as well as performance by groups like the Pussycat Trio (Fulks and Gjersoe plus Beau Sample) or the Scavengers (Fulks and Gjersoe plus Gerald Dowd, Casey McDonough).
On some nights, Fulks turned over the spotlight to his guest artist, acting more like a sideman. One of my favorite examples of this was the show on August 29, 2016, starring Linda Gail Lewis, a sister of Jerry Lee Lewis who sings and plays piano very much in her brother’s style. It was great fun to watch her grinning as she performed with Fulks and the crack band he’d assembled for this gig as well as some recording sessions during Lewis’ visit to Chicago (Scott Ligon, Casey McDonough and Alex Hall). (Fulks wrote about meeting Linda Gail Lewis on his blog.)
Tributes, stellar and strange
Some of Fulks’ Monday-night shows were tributes — including whole evenings devoted to the music of the Everly Brothers, George Jones, Hank Williams, the Velvet Underground (video of “Beginning to See the Light”), Alex Chilton, Cheap Trick, Doc Watson, Harry Nilsson (video of “Without You”), Levon Helm, Merle Haggard, Roger Miller, Liz Phair (video of “H.W.C.”) and Stephen Sondheim. An evening of “Bitter Ex-Beatle” songs included Fulks doing John Lennon’s “God,” with some added lyrics alluding to his regular audience members and the garbage trucks in the city lot across the street from the Hideout. The crowd gives a howl of disbelief when Fulks declares, “I don’t believe in Hideout!” (Video.)
Around Christmastime, Fulks would bring in Steve Dawson and Diane Christiansen from the band Dolly Varden to sing songs about Jesus Christ. Memorably, the power went out in the middle of the first song, the Velvet Underground’s “Jesus,” during the show on December 8, 2014. The “Jesus Christ Trio,” as they called themselves, continued playing, without the benefit of electricity, for the next hour in near darkness — and it was magical.
On some nights, Fulks and his guests covered entire albums: The Flying Burrito Brothers’ The Gilded Palace of Sin, Gram Parsons’ Grievous Angel, Elvis Costello’s Get Happy!!!, Bob Dylan and the Band’s The Basement Tapes (video of “Tears of Rage”) and Bob Dylan’s Slow Train Coming and Street Legal. (The experience of covering Dylan’s overlooked 1978 album Street Legal with rich, full-band arrangements was so rewarding that Fulks has begun working on a studio recording of the whole thing.) On July 21, 2014, Oscar-nominated actor Michael Shannon — whom I’d spotted in the audience at an earlier Fulks gig — handled all the lead vocals for a performance of Lou Reed’s The Blue Mask.
Fulks stayed in the background, playing guitar and incongruously wearing overalls. (Explaining his decision to recruit Shannon for lead vocals, Fulks said, “Who’s going to take a guy in overalls singing Lou Reed songs seriously?”)
The most inventive shows may have been those in which Fulks and his collaborators mashed together two unlikely musicians or styles: Thelonious Monk vs. The Monkees (video of “I’m A Believer”), Graham and Charlie Parker, Jazz Does The Carter Family, Jerry v. Lou Reed (video of the “Amos Moses” and “Sweet Jane” mashup), Merle Travis vs. Miles Davis, and Leonard Cohen v. Lynyrd Skynryd (video of “Freebird”).
Yes, there was banter.
As you can tell from those themes, Fulks has a sharp sense of humor. That also comes through with his stage banter, which was a regular feature on Monday nights. At some point, he’d pause to chat with his guest artists about how their week had gone, invariably telling a humorous story from his own life, or an anecdote about a musician. Amid all the jesting, Fulks also offered smart insights about music and other topics. (When Robbie Fulks and Kelly Hogan covered the James Taylor song “Carolina in My Mind,” they spent five minutes discussing Taylor — captured in this video.)
In one of the more bizarre episodes, Fulks reacted to a 2012 National Enquirer story that referenced his music.
That week at the Hideout, Fulks commented: “Apparently this is Exhibit A in the overwhelming case that Drew Carey is having a mental breakdown — that he likes my songs.” (Video by Jerome Hughes.)
Certain artists and themes drew big crowds — “big” being a relative term, when you’re talking about a venue that holds around 100 people. On many nights, there were just 25 or 30 people in the room. Country singer-songwriter Lydia Loveless made an unexpected cameo on February 3, 2015, when she was stuck in Chicago because of bad weather. After sitting in the audience, she came up onstage to sing a few songs with Fulks, and he explained the Hideout’s Monday-night vibe to her. “It’s a crowd of 30, but it responds like a crowd of 22,” he joked.
Oh, yeah — he also made some great records while all of this was going on.
Over the course of his residency at the Hideout, Fulks released two of the best albums he’s made during his career: Gone Away Backwards in 2013 and Upland Stories in 2016. I suspect that the experience of playing these varied shows on Monday nights influenced his songwriting and recording process. Fulks says one night was especially influential on his songwriting: a tribute on January 19, 2015, to singer-songwriter Jesse Winchester, who’d recently died. “I just remembered how deeply he had hit me when I was 17 years old,” Fulks told me. “And revisiting his writing style came to influence the next, I don’t know, 30 or 40 songs I made up after that.” (Fulks wrote about Winchester on his blog.)
“The end is near!”
During a show in November 2015, Fulks nonchalantly mentioned that he was going to end his run of Monday-night shows. I heard a stirring in the audience as Fulks’ fans reacted to the news. Later that evening, I saw Fulks at the Hideout’s bar and asked him exactly when the end would be. He said it would probably be sometime in the fall of 2016. As it turned out, Fulks stretched it out longer than that, but he finally decided to finish up the residency at the end of February 2017. On his blog, Fulks explains:
…in case anyone’s interested, that the reason I’m ending is that it just seems like the right time to. I had something to accomplish in starting the Mondays; I’m not sure I could have defined it precisely and not sure I did accomplish it after all, but whether I did or didn’t, it’s certainly past time to proceed to the next fuzzily defined idea or goal. If feeling more comfortable in performance was a goal, I can say without much self-love that I’m there! If it was to learn new songs made by other people, I suppose I’ve learned about 1,500 since 2010, and forgotten all but maybe 200. Not much achieved there, but a little. If it was to augment my guitar skills…hmm. Maybe. Probably not.
As the end drew near, I went to the Hideout on Monday night for a Fulks show whenever I could. And after neglecting to photograph many of Fulks’ Monday gigs, I brought my camera to the last three shows. (My photos are posted in a separate gallery.)
February 6, 2017: With Nora O’Connor
On February 6, Nora O’Connor was back, and her singing sounded as exquisite as ever. A cover of the Handsome Family’s “So Much Wine” gave me goosebumps. Another Monday-night stalwart, Kelly Hogan, joined O’Connor and Fulks for a couple of songs. The set included songs by Loudon Wainwright III (video), Jimmy Driftwood (video), Dan Penn (video) and Bobby Braddock (video).
February 20, 2017: With High Plains Jamboree
On February 20, Fulks presented the Austin bluegrass band High Plains Jamboree, and he stepped out of the spotlight for most of the night, playing guitar alongside the group. I became a fan of High Plains Jamboree when the group played with Fulks on a Monday night last year, and this return appearance was just as wonderful. In the middle of the concert, singer-mandolinist Brennen Leigh performed several duets with Fulks, including “The Angels Rejoiced” by the Louvin Brothers (video) and a rousing gospel song, “He Will Set Your Fields On Fire,” by James and Martha Carson — which had Fulks singing one set of words in the chorus while Leigh simultaneously sang other lyrics. The cheers after that song were long and loud. “I knew we had some angry Christians here,” Fulks joked. High Plains Jamboree played two terrific politically themed songs — from an album that’ll be coming out later this year — one about illegal immigration called “El Coyote” (video) and another timely protest number titled “You Ain’t Laying No Pipeline” (video).
When Fulks sang one of his own songs, “Sometimes the Grass is Really Greener,” he responded to the sight of High Plains Jamboree’s old-fashioned-looking microphones by saying it made him feel like Walter Winchell — and then he proceeded to sing a verse in a old-timey radio-announcer voice. And then he added an impressive yodel to the song, earning a big round of applause.
February 27, 2017: The finale with Robbie Gjersoe
For the grand finale, on February 27, Fulks played with the same guy who helped him start off the entire series seven years ago, Robbie Gjersoe. They originally met through one of those old Chicago Reader classified ads where musicians try to find people with similar musical tastes to start a band. Gjersoe is a master guitarist, especially adept at playing with a slide. The parts he adds to Fulks’ songs remind me of the essential contributions that Dave Rawlings makes to Gillian Welch’s music. Whenever these two Robbies play together, it’s a joy to see two guitarists with so much talent playing off each other. “The Robbie and Robbie show is my favorite of all of them,” Nora O’Connor remarked when she joined them onstage during this final show for a few songs.
For once, Fulks played a lot of his own songs — kicking off the set list with several of his most beloved tunes, ones you’d expect during an encore: “Tears Only Run One Way,” “Sometimes the Grass is Really Greener,” “Let’s Kill Saturday Night,” “The Buck Starts Here” and “There You Go Again.” Fulks also played a newer song with the chorus, “The old times have made a wreck of our lives,” explaining that it’s his response to people who are nostalgic about older times — people who say they’d like to live in Louisville in the 1930s, as he put it. “I don’t think so,” Fulks remarked. “You guys heard of dentistry? It’s great.”
Fulks was dressed up more than usual, wearing a sharp-looking suit. And the room was packed full. Reflecting on the end of his residency, Fulks said, “A couple of people have asked me what I’m doing — as if it’s the end of my life.” Later he added, “What I had in mind when I started this was to do just whatever popped into my mind.”
At the very end — the last song of the last show — Fulks and Gjersoe played a bluegrass tune made famous by Jimmy Martin:
There ain’t nobody gonna miss me when I’m gone
There ain’t nobody gonna mourn for me too long
Won’t you write these words upon my headstone
There ain’t nobody gonna miss me when I’m gone
Fulks isn’t actually gone, of course — he still plans to play concerts in the Chicago area and elsewhere — but plenty of folks are sure gonna miss seeing Robbie on Monday nights at the Hideout.
Neko Case said she was playing “deep cuts” at her concert Feb. 25 at the Tivoli Theatre, a grand old cinema in suburban Downers Grove. And indeed, Case performed several obscure tracks from her catalog, which is brimming over with so many shining gems of songwriting, singing and instrumental arrangement. The selections at this show even included a couple of songs from Case’s Canadian Amp EP.
Case is touring to support the recent boxed set that colects all of her albums into one deluxe package — Truckdriver, Gladiator, Mule — so this felt like an opportunity for her to dig through her repertoire.
She played with her longtime musicians Jon Rauhouse (on guitar and pedal steel) and Tom Ray (on upright bass), along with guitarist Eric Bachmann (the lead singer of Crooked Fingers and Archers of Loaf, who has been a member of Case’s touring band for a few years now). And of course, harmony vocalist extraordinaire Kelly Hogan, along with a few appearances by Nora O’Connor. But no drummer — just tambourine shakes and other minimal touches of percussion. That gave the performances a loose, unplugged feeling at times.
Case’s sense of humor was as charming and off-beat as it’s ever been. Indeed, I wondered if any audience members who weren’t accustomed to her stage banter knew what to make of it at times, especially when got amusingly scatological. For my part, it was a confirmation that this is the same delightful eccentric I first saw performing onstage at FitzGerald’s back in 2000.
The concert came to a breathtaking end with the second encore. Case and Hogan walked back out onto the stage and sang the a cappella duet “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu.” It was nearly ruined by the inappropriate laughter of a few audience members reacting to the vulgarity in the lyrics — the line where Case and Hogan sing, “Get the fuck away from me!” That might seem amusing if you don’t know that the song is about a mother yelling that at her young child. But then the rest of the song silenced the crowd, as Case delivered those beautiful final words directed at the child she’d seen: “But don’t you ever shut up please/Kid, have your say/’Cause I still love you/Even if I don’t see you again.” It was a goose-bumps-raising moment.
SET LIST: Outro With Bees / Hold On, Hold On / Bought and Sold /
Man / Vengeance Is Sleeping / Ghost Wiring / This Tornado Loves You / Look for Me (I’ll Be Around) / Nothing to Remember / Andy / Blacklisted / I’m From Nowhere / Night Still Comes / At Last / City Swans /
Duchess / The Needle Has Landed / Middle Cyclone / Maybe Sparrow
FIRST ENCORE: Fox Confessor Brings the Flood / Sleep All Summer (Crooked Fingers cover, duet with Eric Bachmann) / Lady Pilot / Margaret vs. Pauline / Knock Loud / SECOND ENCORE: Nearly Midnight, Honolulu
Another thing that made this evening special was the opening act, Robbie Fulks. Yes, I have seen Fulks a ton of times — probably more than any other performer — largely because of the shows he’s been playing at the Hideout on most Monday nights for the past six years. So it was nothing novel for me to see him performing yet again. But it was great to hear Fulks playing the songs from his forthcoming album, Upland Stories, with a full band (including Nora O’Connor’s singing on several songs). I’ve heard Fulks’ new records, and it’s one of his best. His singing at the Tivoli Theatre show was especially impressive, showing a wide range from subtle quiet turns of phrase to long, sustained country hollers.
I also saw Fulks signing several of the new songs in a session Monday, Feb. 29, at the Hideout, which was filmed for a video. Later the same night, Fulks performed a fun tribute show to Alex Chilton, playing with Liam Davis, Casey McDonough and Gerald Dowd.
Gerald Dowd has drummed for with a lot of different Chicago musicians over the years, rarely taking the spotlight himself. Saturday was his day, and what a remarkable feat it was. FitzGerald’s hosted daylong festival called “Day of the Dowd,” featuring 17 bands playing over the course of 13 1/2 hours. Dowd played drums for the first 16 of these bands, barely taking any breaks longer than a few minutes. And then for the finale, Dowd stepped up to the microphone with an acoustic guitar, singing and playing tuneful alt-country songs from his first album as a solo artist, Home Now.
I showed up halfway through the day, arriving in time to catch a rare performance by the great Chicago power-pop band Frisbie — which was so good that it made me hope Frisbie starts playing more shows and recording music again. The rest of an evening was a who’s who of Chicago’s alt-country and related genres. Here’s the full list of bands that played starting at 11 a.m.: Justin Roberts and the Not Ready For Naptime Players, Dave Sills, Brian Ohern’s Model Citizens Big Band, Electric Dirt, Samba Bamba, the Regulators, Nora O’Connor, the Hoyle Brothers, EXO, Dave Ramont, Frisbie, Jive Council, Kelly Hogan, Lush Budgett, Chris Mills, Robbie Fulks and Gerald Dowd and his Moral Minority.
All of these musicians gave their time to play at this event, celebrating the release of Dowd’s new album and all that he’s done for them over the years. The event also raised money for the Greater Chicago Food Depository. Some singers and musicians kept turning up on the stage, performing with various groups over the course of the marathon.
Dowd started his own set with his 14-year-old son standing next to him and playing guitar. Various other musicians joined Dowd over the course of that final hour, but then it was just him standing alone on the stage for the encore, playing a beautiful acoustic ballad from Home Now. I sensed something especially heartfelt in the applause. It was astounding to think what this man had just put himself through. He was still standing as the show ended around 12:40 a.m., remarking that he was looking forward to a day without any drumming on Sunday.
Robbie Fulks’ Monday-night shows at the Hideout are never the same, covering a huge variety of music and guest-starring all sorts of folks. This week, the theme was a tribute to the late Lou Reed, with a beginning-to-end performance of Reed’s 1982 album Blue Mask. And the special guest — the guy who sang Reed’s songs — was Michael Shannon, the Oscar-nominated actor and cast member of the Boardwalk Empire series on HBO.
Shannon has acted in many Chicago stage plays over the years, and he’s no stranger to live music, either, playing guitar and singing in the band Corporal. And he did an outstanding job “as” Lou Reed — not exactly impersonating the legendary singer but putting across his words and minimal melodies in a style that wasn’t too far removed from Reed’s trademark manner.
Fulks stayed in the background, playing guitar and incongruously wearing overalls. (Explaining his decision to recruit Shannon for lead vocals, Fulks said, “Who’s going to take a guy in overalls singing Lou Reed songs seriously?”) Fulks assembled a crack band to play Blue Mask, including Alex Hall on drums, Jason Narducy on bass, Grant Tye on guitar and Scott Stevenson on keyboards.
The Hideout doesn’t usually sell tickets in advance for Fulks’ Monday-night shows, but it did this time, and it sold out ahead of time. Shannon remarked that he hadn’t heard Blue Mask until Fulks asked him to perform him. As he was listening to the record, his wife — fellow actress Kate Arrington — pointed out that the final song on the album, “Heavenly Arms,” is sung to someone named Sylvia. That just happens to be the name of Shannon and Arrington’s young daughter. She was in the Hideout audience on Monday night with her mom, and Shannon dedicated “Heavenly Arms” to her, filling the song with what was clearly some deep fatherly love.
Addendum: Shannon will perform in “The Hal Russell Story,” a concert at 6: 30 p.m. July 31 at Millennium Park, performing the texts that the late Russell spoke on the 1992 album of the same name. See the park’s website for more details on the show. Thanks to the Chicago Reader’s Peter Margasak for the tip.
Two of the Mekons — Jon Langford and Sally Timms — are preparing to tour Scotland in August, along with another member of Chicago’s alt-country scene, Robbie Fulks. And to help raise money for this trip, the three played together Sunday (July 13) at the Hideout. (Mark Guarino wrote a Sun-Times article about the whole Mekons-Fulks Scottish adventure.)
Most of the songs at Sunday’s show came from the Mekons’ vast discography, including a few deep cuts. It was cool to hear Fulks adding his acoustic guitar leads and solos to these songs, and he even sang lead vocals on the classic tune “Sometimes I Feel Like Fletcher Christian,” usually sung by Tom Greenhalgh. (That’s one of the songs you can hear in the appearance Langford, Timms and Fulks made on WBEZ.) And it was really lovely to hear Timms sing one of Fulks’ songs, “In Bristol Town One Bright Day.”
The trip to Scotland will include a recording session — so we can expect to hear some new music by the Mekons, or some version of the band anyway, someday soon.
My photos from the Bloodshot Records party during South By Southwest, March 14, 2014, at the Yard Dog art gallery, including: the Deslondes, Robbie Fulks, Rosie Flores, Bobby Bare Jr., Luke Winslow King with Esther Rose, and Ha Ha Tonka. (I have a separate gallery of Lydia Loveless photos from the same party.)
These are my favorite records of 2013, the ones I enjoyed the most. Betraying my personal tastes, the list is dominated by alt-country and artists working somewhere around that genre’s vague boundaries. Simply put, a lot of my favorite artists came out with new records in 2013, and a lot of those records were very good. My honorable mentions include quite a few records I wish I could have squeezed into my top 10 — and I wish there’d been enough time to listen more closely to hundreds more.
1. NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS
PUSH THE SKY AWAY
This is the quietest Nick Cave has made in a while, but it’s hardly mellow. In this tense and brooding suite of songs, Cave seems to be drifting in and out of dreams and unsettling nightmares, a world-weary traveler whose memories are slipping away. The fleeting images in his phantasmagoria flash with menace and yearning, climaxing in the epic “Higgs Boson Blues.” nickcave.com
2. NEKO CASE
THE WORSE THINGS GET, THE HARDER I FIGHT,
THE HARDER I FIGHT, THE MORE I LOVE YOU
The latest in a succession of masterpieces by one of the most accomplished singer-songwriters of the past decade and a half. Neko Case has said she drew more on her personal life for her lyrics this time, but the evocative poetry of her songs has always been a bit mysterious, and it remains so. Her voice is as beautiful as ever, too, surrounded here by an alluring variety of musical textures, including sonar blips, jingle bells, trumpets and cellos. Case seems to be creating her own genre, even as her innovative songs echo with the radio signal of classic tunes of the 20th century. nekocase.com
3. ROBBIE FULKS
GONE AWAY BACKWARD
Many of the smart songs on this intimate, acoustic record could have been written in the 1930s, or maybe even the 19th century. With a couple of exceptions, they’re actually new, but this is music with a true old-timey spirit. Renaissance man Robbie Fulks pulls it off with apparent ease, drawing on his encyclopedic knowledge of classic and obscure country, folk and bluegrass. He knows the old stuff, and how to make it new again. robbiefulks.com
4. BILL CALLAHAN
As the title hints, this album feels like a nocturnal journey that flows with the logic of a dream. (In that way, it has a passing resemblance to the aforementioned Nick Cave record, though the two artists have distinct styles and personalities.) There’s a loose, jazzy vibe, punctuated at almost every turn by a singular guitar fill from Bill Callahan’s remarkable sideman Matt Kinsey. It all reaches shimmering perfection on my favorite song of 2013, “Summer Painter,” which finds Callahan musing on the meaning of work, as he sings about a summer job painting rich people’s boats. Then the story takes a turn toward the apocalyptic, when a hurricane hits and people blame the narrator: “Like all that time spent down by the water/had somehow given me control over the rain.” As peculiar as Callahan’s dreams may be, after a while, they start to seem like your own. dragcity.com/artists/bill-callahan
5. MIKAL CRONIN
Like other records of the recent garage-rock explosion, Mikal Cronin’s second album is bursting with exuberance and energy. But it’s also carefully crafted, with a string section adding a touch of grandeur to all of its heartily strummed guitars and pounding drums. The spirit of late ’60s music is alive and well here. One song after another has the sort of melody that makes you want to sing along, thanks in no small part to the vulnerability in Cronin’s voice. mikalcronin.bandcamp.com
6. DAWN McCARTHY & BONNIE “PRINCE” BILLY
WHAT THE BROTHERS SANG
Dawn McCarthy has sung haunting harmonies on previous records by Bonnie “Prince” Billy, aka singer-songwriter Will Oldham. On this tribute to the Everly Brothers, they get equal billing. That’s apt, since the combination of these two voices was one of the year’s delights. The album doesn’t include Don and Phil Everly’s biggest hits, but the song list reminds us just how noteworthy that duo was. In the elegant folk-rock renditions on this record, what the brothers sang sounds beautiful and brand new. dragcity.com/artists/dawn-mccarthy-and-bonny-billy
7. DAVID BOWIE
THE NEXT DAY
David Bowie’s new album seemed to come out of nowhere. And it sounds like it came from another time and place — maybe the 1980s, maybe somewhere on Planet Bowie. This artist who’s legendary for his innovations and constantly shifting persona isn’t necessarily trying to invent anything new this time around, but it’s a batch of excellent songs. The dense rock-band-orchestra arrangements deliver one great hook after another with some wallop, but more than anything, it’s terrific to hear Bowie singing again, sounding like classic Bowie. davidbowie.com
8. JASON ISBELL
The former Drive-By Truckers singer-guitarist finally came into his own with this masterful album, striking a chord with memorable turns of phrase and the rueful wisdom of a man who’s made mistakes and learned from them. jasonisbell.com
9. MAVIS STAPLES
ONE TRUE VINE
Producer Jeff Tweedy’s clean, simple arrangements bring a warm glow to Mavis Staples’ glorious voice in this stirring set of gospel, soul and folk rock. The first song and the last are modern hymns (one written by Low, another by Tweedy), gracefully restrained prayers to the world. mavisstaples.com
10. DOLLY VARDEN
FOR A WHILE
A family album in musical form, with Steve Dawson’s memories filling each page like tantalizing old snapshots. This is the sound of a songwriter and a band at midlife, contemplating their past, present and future, and transforming it into beguiling ballads. dollyvarden.com
Molly Drake — Molly Drake
Yo La Tengo — Fade
Kelley Stoltz — Double Exposure
Veronica Falls — Waiting for Something to Happen
Laura Mvula — Sing to the Moon
Richard Thompson — Electric
Heavy Times — Fix It Alone
Cate Le Bon — Mug Museum
Low — The Invisible Way
Laura Marling — Once I Was an Eagle
Charles Bradley — Victim of Love
Waxahatchee — Cerulean Salt
Rose Windows — The Sun Dogs
Twin Peaks — Sunken
I Was A King — You Love It Here
Sam Phillips — Push Any Button
The Sadies — Internal Sounds
David Lang — Death Speaks
Laura Veirs — Warp and Weft
Superchunk — I Hate Music
The Cairo Gang — Tiny Rebels
Mark Lanegan and Duke Garwood — Black Pudding
Cave — Threace
Patty Griffin — American Kid
My Bloody Valentine — m b v
The Handsome Family — Wilderness
The Liminanas — Costa Blanca
The National — Trouble Will Find Me
Arcade Fire — Reflektor
Chelsea Wolfe — Pain Is Beauty
Disappears — Era
Midlake — Antiphon
Thee Oh Sees — Floating Coffin
Various Artists — Good God! Apocryphal Hymns
Pelican — Forever Becoming
Rokia Traoré — Beautiful Africa
Black Bug — Reflecting the Light
Kronos Quartet/Bryce Dessner — Aheym
Phosphorescent — Muchacho
Shocked Minds — Shocked Minds
Ensemble Signal — Shelter
Alvin Lucier/Janacek Philarmonic Orchestra — Orchestral Works
Cass McCombs — Big Wheel and Others
Dobrinka Tabakova — String Paths
Frank Rosaly — Cicada Music
Savages — Silence Yourself
Bonnie “Prince” Billy — Bonnie “Prince” Billy
Kurt Vile — Wakin on a Pretty Daze
Nadia Sirota — Baroque
Jacco Gardner — Cabinet of Curiosities
Foxygen — We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic
Guided By Voices — English Little League
Mind Spiders — Inhumanistic
Ty Segall — Sleeper
Dumpster Babies — Dumpster Babies
Faun Fables — A Table Forgotten
Last Monday (Feb. 25), I caught two concerts — first, the always-entertaining Hideout residency of Robbie Fulks, who featured Brooklyn singer-songwriter Greg Trooper as his guest this time. I wasn’t familiar with Trooper’s music going into this show, but I was quite impressed with what I heard, and Fulks contributed some masterful guitar solos to Trooper’s tunes while, of course, singing a few of his own.
And then I was off to a free concert at the Empty Bottle with Ex Cops, Henry Wagons and Panoramic & True. Wagons, an Australian singer, was the highlight of the night for me, with his confrontational and highly humorous stage banter, culminating with his effort to get a reluctant audience member standing at the bar to emit a blood-curdling scream as the climax to a song about executions.
It sounds like an unlikely pairing: Chicago alt-country singer-songwriter-guitarist-raconteur Robbie Fulks playing the music of Michael Jackson. But then again, Fulks has wide-ranging musical tastes, judging from all the various stuff he’s covered in his Monday-night shows at the Hideout. So why not Michael Jackson? “Billie Jean” has been a staple of Fulks’ live shows for a while, and last year Fulks released a full album of Jackson covers, Happy. On Friday night (March 18), he played those songs — plus some additional Jackson and Jackson 5 tunes — at Lincoln Hall.
Happy is essentially a novelty record — and not one of my favorite Fulks albums — but he clearly put a lot of work into arranging Jackson’s songs for the idiom of a country band. And the music made for a fun, lively concert featuring DayGlo sets, a few bits of theater, preposterous pajama-like costumes, children, the mandolin playing of Don Stiernberg, a rat puppet, and vocals from the always wonderful Nora O’Connor. It was a silly, festive, strange pageant. And then after all of the Jackson music, Fulks and his band played a mini-concert of their own songs. As he does just about every Monday night at the Hideout (although not in March, when Kelly Hogan and Scott Ligon are filling in), Fulks showed what a great all-around entertainer he is.
As I reported here earlier, Robbie Fulks played every Monday night in February at the Hideout, serving up a completely different kind of show each week. He’s back at the same club this month, and he played a highly entertaining gig last night (April 5) with the Hoyle Brothers. The theme this time was ’70s country music… which meant lots of songs about adultery, by the likes of Barbara Mandrell, Glen Campbell, George Jones and a whole slew of lesser-known singers. As always, Fulks showed a sharp sense of humor while playing guitar with a complete sense of ease. The Hoyle Brothers (www.hoylebrothers.com, myspace.com/thehoylebrothers) were a good match with Fulks, and the band’s singer, Trevor, handled the lead vocals on about half of the tunes.
Fulks isn’t playing next Monday at the Hideout, but he’ll be back on April 19 and 26. The shows are at 7 p.m. with no opening act, finishing up before 9, with a “suggested donation” of $10. Last night, a bucket was passed for bucks halfway through the show. It was well worth $10. And Fulks says he hopes to continue playing lots of these Monday-night gigs through the rest of the year. Watch www.hideoutchicago.com and robbiefulks.com/for details.
Robbie Fulks, one of Chicago’s most talented and most entertaining musicians, is playing at the Hideout every Monday night in February. After missing week one of Fulks’ residency, I caught his performance last night, an evening of lovely duets with another terrific Chicago singer, Nora O’Connor. The two sat on chairs and played acoustic guitars, with Fulks’ fingers plucking fast runs of bluegrass notes while O’Connor played rhythm chords. O’Connor’s no slouch on guitar, as evidenced by her playing in the Blacks, but she was modest about her abilities Monday. At one point, when Fulks said, “Take it, Nora!” she responded with a sarcastic, “Please!“
Fulks and O’Connor played some old-timey bluegrass and gospel tunes, such as “The Lost Indian” and Flatt and Scrugg’s “Take Me in Your Lifeboat.” Of course, they played some of their own songs as well — a couple of recent Fulks songs and a couple of oldies, plus some of the best tracks off O’Connor’s excellent (and thus far only) solo record, 2004’s Til the Dawn. And some cool covers: Fulks taking the lead on George Jones’ “The Flame In My Heart,” and O’Connor singing M. Ward’s “Helicopter,” Fleetwood Mac’s “That’s Alright” and Ketty Lester’s “Love Letters.” In between songs, Fulks was as funny as ever with his stage banter.
As Fulks remarked, how can you go wrong with two people playing acoustic guitars and singing? Well, actually, that sort of thing can go wrong, but that’s not likely to happen with these two. Each of them made the other’s songs feel more complete.
Fulks continues his Hideout residency on Feb. 15 with a string trio. On Feb. 22, he’ll have his full band playing with him. The shows start at 7 p.m., and the suggested donation for admission is $10. www.hideoutchicago.com www.robbiefulks.com
MARCH 3, 2006
at Charlie’s Coffee House, Wilmette, Illinois
JULY 2, 2005
AMERICAN MUSIC FESTIVAL
I always try to make it to this fine festival for at least one day. As Robbie Fulks said during his set tonight, it’s like a little bit of Austin, Texas.
The discovery of the day was the Lee Boys, a Florida “sacred steel” group that plays a rousing blues-gospel-rock. The blazing star of this band is pedal-steel guitarist Roosevelt Collier. The minute I heard this kid playing, it was obvious he’s something special. And the crowd knew it, too. I’m guessing few people in the room knew anything about the Lee Boys before today, but they certainly have some new fans.
The Kinsey Report also impressed with their blues, and Tributosaurus pulled off a nice tribute to the music of the Band.
Robbie Fulks was as entertaining as always — of course, there are those who are put off by his sarcasm and tomfoolery, but I just find it amusing. He’s one of those great showmen with multiple talents — in his case, singing, songwriting, guitar playing and comical emceeing. “Georgia Hard,” the title track of his new CD, already sounds like a classic. The short set came to a rather abrupt end becase of the midnight curfew, as Fulks joked about not wanting to tick off the “Berwyn gendarmes.”
Just as Fulks finished up, the Gourds were getting ready to play inside the club. I’m woefully behind on my knowledge of this Austin band, but I’ve heard a lot of good things about them (despite the fact that President George W. Bush is apparently one of their fans … I guess you can’t blame the band for that). All I can say is they sounded good, but I didn’t know the songs and I was tired.