Robbie Fulks had assembled a pretty kick-ass “bluegrass-ish” band for a weekend’s worth of CD release shows in Arlington Heights and Milwaukee, and he wanted one more to finish the weekend. On his website he said he was looking for something around or between Milwaukee and Chicago. Even though Madison is decidedly not on that route, I e-mailed Fulks to tell him if he didn’t find anything else I was here for him. A few weeks later he accepted. He had just played Madison at the beginning of December, and I didn’t expect there to be the furor to see him in the basement that there was last time. I was wrong. The first show sold out in thirty minutes and the e-mails were still pouring in. We added a second show that sold out with the overflow from the first. A sizable wait list had even formed, but a third show just seemed ridiculous.
His ringers from Nashville were the first to arrive- upright bassist Missy Raines and her husband, who very conveniently is a sound guy, and fiddler Shad Cobb. They looked a little doubtful when they pulled up in front of the house, but I assured them this was the right place. I also made sure that they knew what they were in for. “Robbie did tell you that you are playing two shows tonight right?” They laughed, yes they did know, no problem. I suppose they are professionals, and they made an impressive addition to Robbie’s band. Cobb was a wicked fiddle player and Raines was especially tireless, turning in several remarkable solos of her own as well as keeping a rapid but steady thum, thum, thum going during the extended solos that happened each time during “North Carolina is the Cigarette State.” It looked exhausting. Once again, each of the sell-out crowds laughed at the line “Alabama’s grand, the state not the band” like it was the first time they were hearing it. Guitarist Robbie Gjersoe, who’s joined Fulks every time he’s visited the basement, also got a few laughs by inserting recognizable tunes like “On Wisconsin” and the Violent Femmes big hit into his solos. As usual, the guitar play between the two Robbies was stunning.
Since this was the first time this ensemble had played together, well technically the third and fourth time, they kept things simple. The set lists were basically identical between the two sets with only a few songs changing between the early show and the late. And the early show was early, a 5 pm start time. Robbie thanked the crowd for showing up in the middle of the day. “I know you think you’re going to get some sort of blue hair show, and, basically, you’re right,” he joked, before he explained that they would be getting the same show as the later crowd with just a little less talk. The sets were a nice combination of his twenty year career and selections from his critically acclaimed new record “Gone Away Backwards,” which was named to Rolling Stone’s Top Ten Country Albums of 2013 list. It’s a darker record, full of hauntingly spare tunes and sharp musicianship. They opened the show with “Sometimes the Grass is really Greener,” an up-tempo number that set the pace for the rest of the evening. Old favorites like “Nickels and Dimes” and “The Buck Stops Here” from his first record Country Love Songs stood up well next to the new material. In addition to giving Raines a chance to sing one of her own songs, they duetted on “Keep Those Cards and Letters Coming In,” a song Fulks called timeless since there’s always a war going on somewhere.
What could have been a train wreck flowed like clockwork, again, and two very satisfied capacity crowds filed in and out of the basement and were treated to some great music in between. I can’t wait to do it again next year.