Robbie Fulks came in from Chicago and tore it up on a stage flanked with straw bales
Photo: Russ Riddle
It takes a knock on the door of the master playwright himself, William Shakespeare, for words to do justice to alt.country rocker Robbie Fulks’ appearance in Millville, Kentucky, last Saturday night (Aug. 30).
Recall the Crispian’s Day battle scene, and King Henry the Fifth’s rousing speech just before he leads his men into a mismatched fight against the French at Agincourt (Kenneth Branagh did a spine-tingling, spit-flying rendition in the Merchant/Ivory movie a few years back). Death is surely awaiting many of them in the field, the king admits. But that’s where the glory lies, too. And Henry V predicts that in years hence, no matter the outcome, their countrymen, “shall think themselves accursed they were not here, and hold their manhoods cheap,” because they were not among “we happy few,” on such a occasion.
I was part of the happy few at the Millville community center Saturday night, and if you weren’t, you might as well start feeling accursed now and forever more, as well as holding whichever sexhood you’ve got cheap, because you missed an absolute barn-burner, head-turner and booty-shaker of a show. And surely one of the most enjoyable aspects was that so few even saw it coming.
Until Fulks and his three-piece band took the straw-bale bracketed outdoor stage at about 9:30 there wasn’t much to suggest tiny Millville’s Labor Day weekend concert was going to rock anyone’s world.
Singer-songwriters Will Kimbrough (left) and Tommy Womack, playing together as "Daddy," performed Aug. 31 in Millville
Photo: Russ Riddle
Yes, Fulks was preceded by a couple of accomplished Lexington-area singer/songwriters, and some pleasant local bands before them. But for most of the crowd–topping out at only about 250 in early evening–the music was little more than backdrop for visiting and picnicking on the lawn behind the center (Millville’s former elementary school, complete with a quaint “˜50s-era basketball gym).
There was a definite buzz about this Fulks fellow coming in all the way from Chicago, but not many appeared to have turned out specifically to hear him. And quite a few drifted away before he arrived, apparently content to have listened to some music on a nice late summer day, and expecting the rest of the show would offer no surprises.
A mostly unsuspecting crowd gathered outside the old elementary school over Labor Day weekend
Photo: Russ Riddle
That seemed a safe assumption even after Fulks first appeared. A tall drink of water in sagging blue jeans and an untucked White Sox jersey, he launched into an initial string of country ballads, competently delivered and tightly accompanied by the band. The performance was several notches above what had come before, but some folks were still checking their watches, folding their chairs, and making their way to the parking lot.
They didn’t know Fulks and his crew were just getting warmed up.
But, buddy, those of us who stayed past the ten o’clock hour then witnessed a show so energetic, brash and whip-smart funny, time didn’t just seem to stop, it seemed never to have mattered in the first place.
Fulks could have gone on all night, and I don’t think another soul would have left. He could have sung, along with his band members, a twisted doo-wop acappella tribute to Millville that included lines about bug spray, bad sound systems and straw bales, and not another soul would have left…Hey, wait a minute! He did sing a doo-wop acappella tribute to Millville, made up right on the spot, as best I could tell (why would anyone take the time to write a tribute to Millville beforehand?). And not only did no one leave, we beat our hands into hamburger before it was finished, and begged for more.
And he gave more. Much of the Fulks catalogue–or what I know of it–was there, including Dirty-Mouthed Flo, Sleeping on the Job of Love, I Push Right Over, and Parallel Bars. And if the dance floor remained a little thinly populated–two little girls at least bopped reliably through every one of them and were even joined for a time by Fulks himself–it wasn’t because he wasn’t exuding lots of energy or because the band was having an off night.
Two "Dancing Queens" held court on the outdoor dance floor
Photo: Russ Riddle
It appeared more the case that a large slice of the 150-or-so people who remained just did not know how to deal with was happening to them there in that little hamlet (Shakespeare again!) between Frankfort and Versailles. They were in the presence of genius, they recognized it, and I think a number of them feared any false move might break the spell. They’d get up to dance and–poof!–Robbie and the boys would be gone, and there we’d all be there under the metal awning, crickets chirping, moths fluttering around the buzzing soda vapor lamps, just another night in Millville.
But by god they took that gamble–and how could they not?–when Fulks and crew gave in to the constant pleading from one corner and lit into his acid country version of Abba’s Dancing Queen.
Then the concrete dance floor became one desirable patch of real estate, let me tell you. Millvillians who might before have only thought to dance to break a ruinous drought or to celebrate a University of Kentucky basketball victory, gave in, spilled onto the space in front of the stage, and threw down.
And Fulks wasn’t about to let them sit down again after that. He served up a blistering rocker called Let’s Kill Saturday Night next, then followed with several more shuffle and thumping numbers I would identify here if I had not lost by then most of my powers to assimilate and store information. Instead, I was a pure dancing machine, fueled by the brilliance spilling from the unfairly maligned PA system. I wore a pair of relatively new Teva sandals that night, and they are now resting in my closet, waiting for an application of Shoe Goo to stop the wrenched soles from slapping when I walk.
It was that kind of night. If you were there, you felt blessed, honored, absolutely special, and transcendently entertained.
If you were not, you’d better understand: there’s got to be something deeply flawed about a singer and a band that good, and with a deserved national following, coming to micro-venues like the Millville, Kentucky community center. Somebody, probably sooner rather than later, is going to recognize that, and try to convince Robbie Fulks to stop doing it. If you can get him before the hammer falls, you should.