Monday 20 May 2019

Americana John Fullbright Whelan's, Dublin

John Fullbright
John Fullbright

Ed Power

When John Fullbright learned he was short-listed alongside The Lumineers and Mumford and Sons for last year's Best Americana Grammy his response was to put the phone down and return to what he's been doing, which happened to be cleaning his bath. The reaction was, you suspect, typical of the Oklahoma songwriter - he exudes Olympic-class phlegmatism, appears to approach life from the perspective that beneath every silver lining lurks an inevitable rain cloud.

Not that he's so lacking in self-awareness as to mistake misanthropy for underdog charm. Struggling to be heard over Tipperary hurling supporters partying in the street outside, between numbers he was dryly funny and deprecating - a necessary counter-point to his feverish tiltings at the great American songbook.

His music, too, can be jocular, though humour is interwoven with tragedy. He shared an amusing anecdote about performing his best loved composition, Satan and St Paul, in the real St Paul, where he was greeted with bored indifference (the punchline: turns out he was across the river in Minneapolis). However, the actual tune is devastating in its bleakness, a riot of darkly dreamy wordplay and rasping vocals, its ligaments pulsating with anger and despair.

He was eloquently appreciative of a full-throated audience - standard shtick if playing Ireland but, for once, conveyed with conviction. "Man, after touring Britain and the Netherlands for a week it's good to be with people who express their feelings," he said. Really, he was just tickling us under the chin - all the same, how we lapped it up.

In the US, Fullbright is regarded as one Americana's most intriguing new voices. Of course, this raises the question of how one is to define 'Americana' in 2014. When vying with Mumford and Sons and The Lumineers at the Grammies, to which genre do you truly belong? Such groups are characterised by fashion sense - the waistcoats and broad-brim hats - and insistent jauntiness rather than their music. In battered leather jacket and supermarket jeans, Fullbright hails from another universe entirely.

It is more accurate, perhaps, to think of Fullbright as a conventional country artist with bared teeth: melodies twang agreeably; the lyrics are home-spun, caked in true American grit. Granted, in sensibility, he is light years from the cloying bleating of Garth Brooks et al.

Irish Independent

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