John Fullbright at the Scipio Supper Club

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Danny Alexander writes:

On a Thursday night in May, on a county road midway between Kansas City and the Oklahoma border, John Fullbright takes the stage of the Scipio Supper Club, part roadhouse/part family style restaurant. The place is filled to the brim with diners, ages ranging from perhaps 18 to maybe 80. The club’s been prepared for a special evening of music by some fine country blues from opener Parker Millsap and his bassist Mike Rose, a pair of just barely 20-somethings who certainly know how to catch the attention of a room that may not have even want its attention held. Fullbright immediately ups the ante.

He walks out on stage alone, his small frame dressed simply but wearing his trademark pork pie hat. After a moment at the mic, he lets out this mountain cry, calling “Am I born to die” and taking the whole club with him to a world of “flaming skies.” By the end of that song, he has the club’s full attention, and the whole band joins him to answer with the second song, “Jericho.” The lyric calls on listeners to look inside ourselves, find the walls that trap our souls and “Let your mighty voices sound/ Until the walls come tumbling down.” Death is inescapable but, Fullbright has argued every night of his past year on the road, it’s most certainly not the reason we’re here.

That’s no doubt an essential vision to someone who grows up in the Bible Belt, where the concept of God as a petulant tyrant is so familiar that this Kansas audience, like every other, goes wild over his “hit” religious send up, “Gawd Above.” But what’s the matter with Kansas is what’s the matter with our whole social system—we are not encouraged to free our souls.  We are most certainly not encouraged to turn against the walls that divide us.

It’s precisely that fight in Fullbright’s music that manages to turn a roadhouse on a dark road in Kansas into a sacred space while filling that space with what he calls his “reluctant love songs,” blues improvisations and plain old rock and roll fun. His crack band aids enormously in this: Drummer Giovanni Carnuccio III is a driving force who can drop rhythm on a dime at Fullbright’s seemingly intuitive cue; at one point bass player David Leach similarly responds to a nod for a stand-up bass solo propulsive enough to carry Fullbright through a surprisingly natural dance as he moves from guitar to his first instrument, keys. Then there’s guitarist Terry “Buffalo” Ware’s ringing responses to Fullbright’s vocal call, always eloquent in his phrasing but able to swing from a pencil thwacking thump in one Waits-like jam to an unexpected Hendrix refrain to snap the band back in focus when another jam seems to have veered off course.

All of that said, Fullbright’s songwriting is the center pole for this tent show. Like any great country or blues artist, Fullbright recognizes life’s limits bind his songs (his ballads are so sad because even on those rare occasions when things are good, as in a new song’s refrain “don’t I feel like something when you’re here,” they’re fleeting and fragile). But what makes John Fullbright a fine rock and roller is that he has a strong sense of the transformative power of music. All of this intimacy around our failings is a strength with still untapped potential. You can hear it most clearly in perhaps his greatest pop song, “Daydreamer.”  He has no answers, but when he sings “Dream me a better world, and I’ll find a better way,” he wants someone to call his bluff.

So it makes sense that one of the high points of that Thursday evening comes when one of several sound system malfunctions causes his guitar to cut in and out on the new solo acoustic song, “Keep Hope Alive,” a song so stark and personal no one in this Republican county bar confuses it with a campaign slogan. If anything, it feels universally apparent how such a song suggests the malignancy of promises unfulfilled.

Fullbright doesn’t wait to see if his guitar is going to stay on after the second time it cuts out; he unplugs it, and he steps away from the mic. The whole place now grows so quiet no one dares even to count change at the bar. The singer steps up onto a chair and sings to the back of the club’s two rooms. He takes the song through to the end and receives the loudest applause, hoots and hollers of the evening. The power in that moment certainly sounds nothing like that God in the other song; just a guy doing the best he can and fighting for his life.

Photo by Ann Cox

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