Men with Hats, Men with Disturbing Shirts: Webb Wilder & Robbie Fulks at Fitzgeralds
We'd hoped that we'd left early enough to maybe, possibly score a table before Webb, but one can never tell with Fitzgerald's new addiction to constantly shifting the furniture. I bitched during the Junior Brown show about the missing platform. Now they have a lonely booth in the corner where we stood and watched Junior, about 3 feet of platform coming off that, and bare wall at the back, with two rows of tables on the East (I think) wall. To counterbalance the drastic steps they're taking to disrupt the ley lines or battle bad fang shui, they are going smoke free entirely as of tomorrow, and both the Webb Show and Robbie's were smoke free. (Particularly good news for me and my creeping pulmonary crud.)
Anyway, it looked like we were hosed with regard to seating until M was bold enough to ask two guys who were taking up a table for 6 if they were using two of the chairs. We started to move them along the back wall and were told we absolutely could not move the furniture (a policy I would come to embrace last night). We set them back down in the vicinity of the table they'd come from, which seemed to satisfy, and then a very nice couple invited us to use part of their table. We didn't get their names, but thank you nice, Webb-loving couple!
The opening band was the Javelinas, although we only learned this long after we'd left Fitzgerald's, because it was difficult to understand the lead singer a lot of the time. As I think I've disclosed before, I drove around for months with only one speaker in Maurice, my majestic 1988 Cavalier, before realizing that Jimi Hendrix never did an instrumental of "Foxy Lady." That being representative of my nonaudiophile nature, I wouldn't presume to say what the problem was beyond some things were way too loud and others weren't loud enough.
Still, as opening bands for Webb go, they were pretty enjoyable. I liked several of their songs, notably "Stop, Drop, & Rock 'n Roll," "Red Shoes," and "Detroit Narcotic Nights." They were fun to watch and had no tragic intraband disagreements regarding crucial things like key (unlike the umpteenth Replacementsesque band we saw before Webb earlier this year). Moreover, the crowd seemed to be reasonably into them, so I'd call it a success. This did not stop the people behind us (all two of them) from saying after every song, "Please be done." "THEY ARE AWFUL." "Don't they KNOW they've OVERSTAYED THEIR WELCOME?" Uh, whatever. I've been to Fitzgerald's many, many times before. It's not a crowd known for pity applause and attention. Save your rudeness for the really bad, belligerent opening bands (which I've also seen there).
Webb and the Beatnecks were on stage shortly after 11, and were quite finely attired. During set up, Tom had been wandering around in a blue sweatshirt, but this was merely to disguise the grandeur of his awesome red velvet-burnout jacket. Webb had a dark, striped shirt with a vest over it and, of course, The Hat. George . . . I don't even know how to begin describing George's shirt. Um. It was orange. And brown. And White. And rubyandoliveandlilacandmauve. Let's just say that this one very well could have been a patch on it and one would've been hard pressed to find it. The Shirt was accompanied by a hat something along these lines. Jimmy was disguised as an Irish publican in a tweedy jacket and cabbie hat. This is clearly a futile attempt to hide his secret identity as Joe Cocker. (Actually the Cocker Resemblance Obsession is M's. I don't see it much, myself.)
We haven't seen Webb perform since the somewhat tense and less than ideal gig at Knuckleheads. The few times before that, it had seemed like they'd all been working too hard. I think it was last January at Fitzgerald's that Webb's voice was all but gone. But Friday night, they were all looking fit, sounding fine, and apparently having a ball. I remain bummed that the crowd's reaction to About Time continues to be less enthusiastic than for the older stuff.
Certainly, "no new crap" vibe was substantially toned down from that in Kansas City.
I think that's at least partly attributable to the fact that it's clear that they have a great time performing things off that CD, and it's hard not to be caught up in their energy. In particular, "Jimmy Reed" was smokin' on Friday. Webb also mentioned that Kevin Gordon had opened for them in the past, leading M and I to exchange "holy shit" looks. We're pretty sure we'd have remembered him, so we assume that we haven't seen one of those shows.
In any case, we never have to worry about a bad Webb show (that's crazy talk), but this was an especially good one. And I'm not just saying that just because Tom finally caved on his Hatless position for the encore and got a freakin' coonskin cap. Frickin' awesome.
So last night, we vowed not to be dependent on the kindness of strangers for getting a table. We arrived just before 8 PM (opening act starts at 9:30 PM), and found Dolly Varden just finishing their sound check/rehearsal. We were the only ones there, except for a woman who was clearly with DV. I'm such a rocker that I settled down with my knitting and beer and M (futilely hoping to match my rocking nature) had a book and beer. As we began to discuss the possibility of getting some food, our superawesome waitress recommended a few places, and M went out to hunt for something, as befits his gender role.
By 9:30, the place was absolutely packed and I was trying not to physically assault the somewhat strange gentleman who kept setting his beer down on the foot of the stage, well within catastrophic spill distance of the pretty, pretty guitars. Although we were in the first two seats at the first table, things had filled in around the stage sufficiently that I couldn't see very well, so I was somewhat befuddled when Dolly Varden launched into their first song and my brain said, "That's Steve Dawson singing." (Wow that picture on his website is so not what he looks like anymore, in part because he stole his guitarist's old haircut.) Anyway, I've mentioned that Steve is an important cog in the small bourgeois clique of Old Town and, unsurprisingly, a great musician. (I've never seen him perform solo before and obviously I'm a moron who was oblivious to the existence of Dolly Varden.)
On the way home, M opined that he'd enjoyed DV, but that they didn't seem to be the best fit with Robbie. Of course, to me, it seems like a natural fit because I associate them with the same general pool of crazy, irritatingly gifted, swell folks from Old Town. But I take his point in terms of style. Dolly Varden leans much more to the pop side of things—a heaping helping of the best and weirdest of the Beatles, with just a dash of country, whereas Robbie is much more explicitly a crusader for country. But I still find them similar in the emphasis on intelligent lyrics, phenomenal harmony (it's a relief that Steve Dawson and Diane Christiansen are married, because otherwise we'd have to undertake evil experiments to meld their vocal DNA in a lab), and music that's actually pleasant to hear. Anyway, I liked them a great deal and my feeling of stupidity at not knowing about them increased throughout the evening.
Robbie et al. took the stage not too long after 11 and I began wondering if the t-shirt he was wearing (under a button down) could possibly say "Half Man, Half Horse." It did, but that was the least surprising/disturbing/hilarious thing about shirts for the rest of the evening. After doing a few of their own songs, Robbie warned the crowd that this was something of a dress rehearsal for their New Year's Eve Extravaganza in Madison, WI. By tradition, he promised, they would do a review of the most popular music of the year and touch on politics.
Oh. My. God.
At the start of the music year in review, Grant (guitar), Mike (bass/vocals), and Gerald (drums) left the stage and Joe Terry (keyboards) took the stage to get the ball rolling. They had deemed the songs they chose the most popular by spending two weeks torturing themselves by compiling data on crap they'd never heard. Because the Fitzgerald's crowd is so discerning and sophisticated, Robbie assured us, he realized that we would need an annotated version of the songs if we were to have any idea what was going on. With this in mind, they introduced Signboard Gerald. I can't be entirely responsible for the accuracy or validity of any information following that, because I was busy alternately laughing and coughing up a lung from laughing. Signboard Gerald = Pure Comedy Gold.
Signboard Gerald sported nested "helpful t-shirts" bearing the name of the artist being lampooned. He also provided sign language interpretation of the excruciatingly bad lyrics of High School Musical, Beyoncé, Chamillionaire, Rascal Flatts, Dixie Chicks, Nelly Furtado (Robbie as Promiscuous Girl. So. Very. Disturbing.), Josh Turner (Me and My God. My God and Me.), and some others I'm forgetting. If the coughing/laughing/oxygen deprivation excuse doesn't exonerate me on the Alzheimer's front, perhaps the finale of this will.
The last shirt unveiled by Signboard Gerald simply read: Justin. And then Robbie started stripping. All the way down to his wifebeater, which said Sexy on the front and Back on the back. One might argue that this could have been funnier if I had any idea that Justin Timberlake was still alive or that he had a CD called "Sexy Back." You'd be wrong. It could not have been funnier. Or at least it was maxed out on funny right up until the point that Robbie invaded the crowd at the front of the stage and got a few singles in his highly visible boxers for his trouble.
Content in the knowledge that he'd robbed everyone, up to and including Gerald who "ha[s] the view that nobody wants," of any Robbie-based sexual fantasies, they launched back into some of their own stuff for a while. One never knows whether or not to take anything about Robbie or the band at face value, but they certainly seem to have a casual approach to things, calling for requests so that they can slap the audience down, making Mike sing lead on a song so that short-attention-span Robbie can have a break, demanding a 12-minute guitar solo of Grant (followed by a 10-minute piano solo from Joe) so that Robbie can nip off to the back for a beer. It be equally unsurprising to me to find that things are actually scheduled down to the nanosecond or to find that, yeah, it's just that casual. Whatever the case, as much as I love the recordings of these guys, they really pale to watching them have what looks like one fuck of a good time. As I kept repeating on the way home, everything about them is Just. Wrong. WRONG. And I love it.
And speaking of Wrong, the political year in review? The delicious, heinous wrongness started with the "Religious Hatred Rag," (which, yes, is still going through my head, thank you so bloody much), featuring the band members (but notably not Robbie [or Joe] . . . . hmmmm) in ridiculous, stereotype costumes. From there, they moved to the showstopper "I Love a Powerful Dame." I'm pretty sure that the imagery here was necessary to convince the audience that there is, in fact, a lower, more disturbing place than that occupied by gyrating, be-wifebeatered, butt-crack-baring Robbie. Grant deserves special mention for his brief stint as a Washington Page in "Mark Foley Sent me an IM" (to the tune of "Baby Wrote Me a Letter." Likewise, he held his own as Mel Gibson to Robbie's Michael Richards in their vaudeville routine. That's saying something, given that Robbie's Kramer is an even better impression than his Willie Nelson on "Lukenbach, TX."
After more country music, a . . . . person (?) in the audience went pretty literally mad for "Rap of the Dead." Having heard this exhaustive list (including the Fortran guy), with only one minor glitch, I appreciate his enthusiasm, even if I couldn't hope to match it without some pretty hefty pharmaceutical assistance. Both M and I were fans of the tribute to Pluto by Mike the mild-mannered bassist (andDr. Phlox double), even if Robbie did pronounce it "faggy," thus opening a dialogue about free speech versus freedom from oppression between Robbie and Grant.
But country music comes first last and always in the hearts of Robbie fans. They finished with a few of their songs, ending, of course, with a version of "Let's Kill Saturday Night" that might have actually gone to 12. We interrupted their calls to their moms by demanding an encore, which they provided with good grace. All told, they probably played for 2 full hours (and poor Gerald, who had been covering for Dolly Varden's drummer, had been lashed to the mast for nearly 4). On the one hand, it felt like 5 minutes, and on the other, I keep remembering yet another hilarious thing that I simply can't omit. Awesome, awesome, show. Robbie is officially on the "to be stalked" list.