Going Out On a High Note
Donna and Robbie Fulks singing "Cocktails" at the year-end show.
Pity the Opening Act
In many ways, I can't help but feel sorry for the Famous Brothers. They opened the show for Robbie Fulks at Fulks' annual year-end review and concert show at Fitzgerald's in Chicago on January 2, 2016. Despite fine harmony and great comedic songs, by the time Fulks finished four hours later, it was hard to remember the Famous Brothers had even been there.
The Famous Brothers, Willie B. Famous, Darren 2B Famous, and Ricky Famous Famous, sound great with their three-part harmonies. The problem is you're so busy laughing at their highly politically incorrect songs and slams at Appalachia ("Inbred Mountain Holiday") that you barely notice how well they sing together. They were very enjoyable and quite funny, especially with their "good Christian and good Republican" ode to Donald Trump, "One Way Trip to Stupidville."
Famous Brothers' "One Way Trip to Stupidville"
The Comedy Show
Fulks' year-end show is divided into two parts. The first half is an hour-long series of skits that look back on the previous year, and the second half is all music. The skits feature Fulks, his wife Donna, Chicago actor Joe Dempsey, and members of Fulks' band. This year they pounded Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples (Ms. Davis was played by a man) and Donald Trump (Dempsey, wearing what appeared to be a piece of shag carpeting or a pelt to mimic Trump's similarly-appearing hair). Fulks and his bass player, Beau Sample, got into a heated discussion about Robbie "stealing" the year-end show idea from Sample's jazz musician father, who had been popular in the 20's and 30's then took a downward spiral into drugs and alcohol. Fulks then revealed that he was Sample's real father, with a "flashback" to the 80's where Beau played his very pregnant mother.
As usual, the look back at the famous obituaries, "Rap of the Dead," was the most eagerly anticipated part of the first half. As the name implies, Fulks raps the names of the celebrities who died in the previous year, sometimes with commentary (such as a stab at Jackie Collins' lack of literary greatness) and word plays (saying that R&B great "Allen Toussaint....ain't!" at the end). This was followed by a sock puppet presentation of two Chicago radio hosts (played by Fulks and Dempsey behind a cardboard stage) critiquing the "Rap of the Dead" series and blasting Fulks' music ("Naperville teenagers with Guitar Shop gear could make better music").
Getting Down to Music
After the comedy (the "official" comedy, I should say) finished, Fulks got down to music. He opened with a scorching version of "Can't Win For Losing You." The concert reunited him with his longtime guitarist, Grant Tye (who hasn't been playing with Fulks for the past few years while Robbie's been playing mostly bluegrass and acoustic shows), and Tye played as though his life depended on it. Every solo was blistering and augmented the song splendidly.
About two songs into the set even Fulks realized something special was happening. He swapped shirts (later causing his wife to blame being late for her appearance onstage to duet on some songs on "ironing your shirt") and went to town. He featured at least one song from every album in his career (save for Happy, his 2010 tribute to Michael Jackson), including letting the decidedly non-bluegrass band give a refreshing read to "Sometimes the Grass is Really Greener" from Gone Away Backward.
The special treat of the show was "They Want Me Here," one of Fulks' quieter numbers featured on his download-only 50 Vc. Doberman collection. He rarely does this song, and it was the perfect pause to allow the audience to catch their breath. After that, the crowd had to hold on for dear life and Fulks stormed through his catalog, including "Parallel Bars" (sung with Donna), two more concert rarities, "Jean Arthur" and a cover of Gordon Terry's "Lotta Lotta Women," and "She Took a Lot of Pills (And Died)." By the time he reached "Let's Kill Saturday Night," the final song before the encore, the energy onstage and in the audience was strong enough to send Fitzgerald's into orbit.
I see Robbie Fulks a lot, and for good reason: as with the other half of my road tripping "dynamic duo," Dale Watson, Fulks never gives anything less than 100%.
When tickets went on sale Fulks said this would "most likely" be his final year-end show. It's sad to see this long-time tradition end, but he certainly left the crowd with cherished memories.