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Monday, December 25, 2006

Unbuilding a Mystery: Robbie Fulks Secret Country with Kevin Gordon & Pat McLaughlin

My comparative silence here may have led to the mistaken conclusion that I've had positively no life whatsoever over the last two months or so. Quite the opposite, actually. I've been living two entirely separate lives: the one in which I do nothing but grade terrible papers and exams 24/7 and the one in which I've been doing a bunch of awesome culture and culture-adjacent things about which I have no time to write. But hear ye, hear ye, let the twain meet.

Given that a month has elapsed since M and I finally got off our asses and got tickets to see Robbie Fulks Secret Country in its natural habitat, I'm unlikely to do either the experience or the performers justice. But what the hell, I'm giving it a shot.

So we actually have to set the Way-Back machine for same day that I volunteered for the Dan Zanes and Friends kids show. Your resident genius left her cell phone at home that morning (but it was at least left plugged into the charger for once in its life). This resulted in my having to find and actually use a pay phone, something I have not attempted since, I believe, Gerald Ford was president. (Oh, wait, I just remembered that I tried futilely to use one to contact JRH the day that I inadvertantly left him broasting on the steps of the Field.) Although I am about as well suited to use a pay phone as I am to . . . do whatever it is one does to make the space shuttle go, I did successfully place a call informing M that, yes, we did have tickets.

M and I met up and grabbed some dinner at Daily Bar & Grill, and then headed in. I'd panicked when buying the tickets and gone for one of the tables on the floor. I don't necessarily object to these (and I rather like having a table to serve as an altar for my beer), it did mean we were about 7 feet from stage left and the giant, Old Timey Mic that they use to record the show for rebroadcast on XM Radio. So, assuming that they don't fuck with the schedule on account of Christmas Day, you should be able to hear our goofy laughs and/or profanity laden conversations on X-Country's "Slip Stream Special" at 11 AM (and assuming I can read [a big, big assumption] that will be rebroadcast Thursday at 7 PM and again Saturday at 11 AM).

All told, the Secret Country shows last around 3 hours. In the first, Robbie follows an introduction by someone from WLUW with his own dead pan intro and does an "interview" with someone on the Secret Country staff. This time it was with the two troglodyte sound engineers who spend every performance in the basement, never interacting with other staff, let alone the talent. But that's ok, because neither of them really likes country, you see. It's the kind of funny that is absolutely made roadkill by trying to explain, so I'll abstain and simply note that The Quirk is strong in this one.

After this portion of the festivities, Robbie sits down in a little conversation nook (three folding chairs and a floor lamp that, as far as I can tell, does not function) with the two artists for the evening. Here, he conducts an informal interview that is treated with approximately 7% more seriousness than the staff interviews, yet still manages to extract interesting tidbits from the performers and, more importantly, insight into them and their work. The ease with which Robbie pulls this off fills me with professional envy, especially given that it seems he does little or no prepping for the interviews (e.g., he didn't seem to know whether the performers would be playing alone or with a band that night).

As Robbie himself put it, November's Secret Country performers—Kevin Gordon and Pat McLaughlin—fell more on the secret end of the spectrum than is sometimes the case. (Case in Point: One half of December was Jimmie Dale Gilmore—tragically sold out early on, though, so I can provide no inside into how the Voice That's Always Driving By is accomplished.) As synchronicity would have it, though, M and I would meet up with some old friends before the night was out, stealth performers or no.

Among the things Robbie covered during the interview was the writing process. In no particular order, I'll share the two factoids that stuck with me most. The first is that Kevin Gordon was at Iowa Writer's (and got his MFA from there). This is interesting to me to me for a couple of reasons. First, because he seems to have a mixture of scorn for and sheepish pride in the degree that strikes me as about right. Second, there really is a certain something in his song writing that makes it wholly unfair that he's (so far) remained on the secret side of things. Whether Iowa plays a causal role in that, or it's just his innate talent that landed him in Iowa and continues to serve him well on the lyrical side, I don't know. More on that in a bit, but if you feel like dirtying yourself to brave myspace, see his blog entry from October 13 for a bit of what I'm talking about.

Pat McLaughlin's contribution to this side of the discussion was hilarious in the grand Robbie Fulks tradition. For once sounding serious, Robbie asked specifically about a song of Pat's that has the lyric "Ain't that a pretty bird? Sure ain't a friendly bird" and how he'd come to write it. Answering, just as seriously (something of a feat, as Pat has a smile to rival that of Ray Wise [actually, he rather reminded me of {noncrazy, nonloser} Ray]), Pat admitted that the song had been inspired by a particularly exciting case on the People's Court in which the Defendant's bird had bit the Plaintiff. No one, up to and including Robbie, seemed to know whether or not to take this seriously. When it became clear that Pat was on the level, Robbie thanked him wholeheartedly for completely and forevermore ruining the song for him.

One of the other main topics of conversation was their approaches to guitar. Both described a somewhat adversarial relationship with their instruments (um, literal, noneuphemisitic instruments). I can't remember now whether it was Pat or Kevin who revealed that he quit guitar lessons every single time the spectre of playing individual notes appeared. Thinking on it, I believe it was Pat, because it led into a discussion of his approach to the guitar, which is rather . . . ballistic. Cool, definitely. Difficult to describe, decidedly. Violent, indubitably.

Robbie was also struck by (um, not literally this time) Pat's approach. He turned to the guitar set up center stage and asked as if it was Pat's. It turned out to be Kevin's, and Robbie asked if it worked ok without amplification. At this point, I think Kevin realized that Robbie was looking for Pat to do a brief demonstration of his technique. It's possible that he blanched a bit at the prospect of his guitar getting the McLaughlin treatment, but he was ultimately saved by an open-D tuning, which apparently has three asses as far as Pat is concerned.

This interlude, I've just found, is somewhat ironic. I've been trying to remember the 60s actor whom Pat said inspired his playing style (it's possible that this was some kind of David Lynch-esque joke that went over my head), and I came across this puremusic interview with him that he plays a Robert Johnson-era Gibson (although I'm reasonably sure that's not what he was playing at Old Town). Dude, Timex should use that baby for one of their misguided ads.

The third and final topic of conversation that stuck in my mind was Lucinda WIlliams. She recorded the title track with Kevin on Down to the Well and Robbie asked about the experience. Kevin looked like a deer in headlights for a moment, but Robbie smoothly stepped in and—with the mixture of brutal honesty, full affection, and frank fan-boyish admiration—shared his own experience recording with her, which is immortalized here. Kevin looked relieved and rolled with a similar sentiment. When they'd recorded "Down to the Well," she was late, horribly so, and utterly incognizant of any culpability on her part. But when all's said and done, and the track is a piece of tasty goodness, it's hard to care.

Between the interviews and the sets, there was a brief break after which Kevin was up first. He'd noted that he'd been playing with a trio and one of his band had flown down specially for this gig. In the general lunacy of the day, neither M nor I made as much as we ought to have made of Kevin mentioning "Tom Comet" on bass, despite the fact that my covetousness rays were on full alert in the direction of a suspiciously embiggened bass sitting on stage.

Of course, when Kevin came out, he was accompanied by another guitarist, who looked incredibly familiar to me and yet I haven't been able to place him, a drummer, and none other than Tom Comet, the bassist we've seen play with Webb Wilder easily more than a dozen times over the last 10 years. As if we weren't already feeling at home, Tom's simple presence invited us to kick our shoes off.

I've already spilled that I think Kevin Gordon is an exceptional song writer. If I can leap ahead from the interview to the performance, I'll direct my gentle readers' attention to "Flowers" (scroll down to it. You know you want to.) in support of my point. If he only had his prose skills at his disposal, "Flowers" could easily have become a maudlin nightmare. (In fact, I'm pretty sure it has become a maudlin nightmare in most communities in the US, just not in song form.) Instead, "Flowers" is haunting, beckoning, and condemning. It scolds and demands and evokes and rouses. It's fully as eerie as the truest recordings of Billie Holliday performing "Strange Fruit." I haven't yet heard the recording by Irma Thomas, but I can't wait to do so.

Though I'm egregiously white and wholly unsuited to do so, I'd also like to give a shout out to "24 Diamonds," a song Kevin had talked about under the interrogation light with Robbie. Being a Northern Louisiana boy, KG had been acquainted with Joel Rundell of Better than Ezra, who died at 24 under unclear, but inevitably depressing circumstances. The song, KG revealed, was inspired by running into Rundell's mother in a bar and seeing bracelet, set with 24 diamonds, she'd had made of his guitar strings. Talk about your recipe for maudlin (and I say that while firmly standing in the camp of "everybody dies, and yet when someone does, it is the worst possible thing that can happen"), and yet there's not a hint of that in his performance of it, and it would take a willfully twisted reading of the lyrics and music to make it so.

If I had only heard him talk about his background and then heard his songs, I'd be worried about my own tendency to gravitate in the general direction of academia. As it happens, I don't have to be overly concerned that I'm unduly impressed by his white collar street cred and therefore predisposed to favor his lyrics: I heard a Kevin Gordon song months ago, before I'd ever heard of Kevin Gordon. To be sure The Last of the Full-Grown man has a voice that brings all non-rock-and-roll-based activity to a screeching halt, but apart from that I remember distinctly being stopped dead by the lyrics to "Jimmy Reed (is the King of Rock and Roll)":
Dark sunglasses, shark-skin suit
Standin' on the broken glass of East Dubuque
On a Sunday mornin', on a Sunday mornin'

I feel like a snob, a heel, and all sorts of other smite-worthy things admitting this, but I don't think I'll ever be able to hear anyone sing "Jimmy Reed" without longing for Webb's erotic basement tones. All the same, I wouldn't trade hearing the songwriter's version for the world. Furthermore seeing Kevin Gordon sing it had a power to match or even exceed Webb. The thing about KG is that he's so talented writing in so many different genres, styles, and so on that his voice couldn't possible be suited to singing every single one of them. When I remind myself of that, I feel slightly less guilty for having loved see him perform his own creations, but either eagerly awaiting or preferring to listen to others' versions of his lyrics and music.

As far as Pat's performance goes, I felt like I was slapped between the eyes by a 2 x 4 when I was asked to accept the high-energy chameleon that performed for almost 90 minutes as the same self-effacing, good-humored individual we'd seen Robbie Interviewed. I'd say he performed alone, but I think his aforementioned special relationship with his guitar elevates it to the status of com-usician.

Throughout his performance, I was trying to reconcile his guitar style with the fact that he plays fairly routinely with John Prine. I could fill many, many screens with my extremely passionate feelings about John Prine, but I'll try to curtail the Prine commentary here and just say: Seriously, Dude. WTF? I love, worship, and adore John Prine. John Prine has motivated me to practice finger picking (and no one who does not live in my head can appreciate the profundity of that news flash). But, let's face it: John Prine has been playing the same 4 chords in the same way for the last 35 years. And that way, in defiance of all laws of probability, is the one way in which Pat McLaughlin does not approach his guitar with malice aforethought.

As I sat, completely entranced by Pat McLaughlin's guitar playing, vocals, and engaging performance, my brain staunchly resisted thinking of him within spitting distance of John Prine. When he started a song with "Beagle Hound, Beagle Hound, Where you gonna sleep tonight?" something tingled in the back of my brain. By the time "Her Own Good Time" rolled around, and he sang "When I learn how to work my new Tascam Rewriteable CD Recorder/when Miami Beach is under six feet of snow," I thought "Not only is this a man who has been spending time with John Prine, he's given as good as he got." Furthermore, it's within the realm of possibility that he once got fired for being scared of bees.

While I was in the bathroom, M, a paragon among spouses, snapped up all the available Kevin Gordon CDs and we've yet to look back, despite my intention to seek out others who have recorded his songs and thus cheat on him at my earliest convenience and at every opportunity, we haven't looked back. He also ordered Pat's CD's via his website, and we got a hand-written note on the back of a scrap of paper (no hair sample for forensic purposes, which distinguishes all packages sent out by moi) saying "thanks." It's the "I am not a rock star" touch that made already great performances from both him and Kevin Gordon all the better.

Catching as many of the Secret Country shows as possible is definitely on the resolution list at Telecommuniculturey.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I very much enjoyed your piece on Kevin Gordon. In doing some searching on Jimmy Reed, I came across the KG song and was moved--well, as moved as a person my age can be about an artist (KG) with whom he was was not familiar. In trying to find out why on God's Green Earth a poet/singer-songwriter from Iowa (albeit via Louisiana) would have written a song about Jimmy Reed, I came across your blog and, as I mentioned above, enjoyed it very much. What prompts me to comment, however, is that your remarks led me to Webb Wilder's version (complete with the haunting guitar) of the KG song. In short, I doubt that I would have found that version, save for your pointing me in the right direction. So, thanks, and keep up the good work.
PS: If you gleaned any insights into why KG would write a Jimmy Reed song, pass them on in another blog.

6:59 PM  

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