October 31, 2010
BY MARK GUARINO | Chicago Sun-Times
Robbie Fulks is not a musician who is comfortable standing still. Spin the wheel to hit any year, month, day or time and his performance at that very moment might land on a Flatt & Scruggs country-gospel tune, a lost pop nugget from Big Star, a Merle Haggard ballad, a Michael Jackson hit, a tribute to Vic Chesnutt or songs from Fulks’ own catalog known for their clever wordplay, big choruses and pockets of instrumental virtuosity.
Fourteen years after his album debut, he has found a venue to suit his idiosyncratic pursuits: a permanent Monday night residency at the Hideout where — starting last February and scheduled to continue into next year and, he says, “probably indefinitely” — Fulks is intent on introducing audiences to not just his own music, but to illustrate the sweet spot where musical genres and eras intersect, whether in the narrative, chord structure or, as in a recent week that twined the Monkees with Thelonious Monk, an ethereal solidarity that the musicians were challenged to seek and bring to life.
Because of its very nature, with Fulks rotating through different settings with a cast of musicians, the weekly appointment presents the audience with a new way of listening to a set of music rather than what they may have come to expect from a band on tour.
“People can observe something happening rather than something that is already put together in advance and polished and honed and trotted out for applause,” he says. “This is something that is taking shape before our eyes.”
Change in routine needed
Residencies are a continuing way for musicians to experiment, to collaborate in styles and with other musicians in ways that conventional touring does not allow. To John Rumble, the senior historian at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, the tradition for residencies in country music is long, dating back to the period when dance bands like Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys often locked down weekly dates at halls where they not only earned a reliable income and created stability outside of touring, but they were able to grow and develop their music.
Touring is often antiseptic to innovation compared to a residency, which, by its very nature, demands a change in routine. “The addition of different musicians [each week] can change the entire chemistry of a performance so there’s that sense of excitement and possibility,” Rumble says.
Creating a destination for an audience to discover rather than bringing the show to where they live is another reversal in the routine, but it’s one that helps cities shape their musical identities over time. It would be difficult to imagine New Orleans without knowing that on any Thursday night you can see favorite son Kermit Ruffins at Vaughan’s Lounge, or on any Tuesday the Rebirth Brass Band at the Maple Leaf Bar. The street band and jazz vocalist traditions established almost a century ago in that city are not just memorialized in those weekly performances, they continue forward as contemporary music that refuses to settle under the dust.
Likewise, Chicago’s jazz and blues traditions are held ground each Monday night at the Green Mill on the North Side and Artis’ Lounge on the South Side, where Patricia Barber and Billy Branch play respectively. The regularity of the performances suits performers who may see less value in winning over an audience than they do taking them on a journey into the unexpected.
For musician-producer Jon Brion (Kanye West, Fiona Apple), residencies are a chance to connect to the audience strictly through the performance and nothing more.
“Most people who join rock bands, their desire is to be a rock star more than for the actual joy of performing. Performing is just thought of something you can do because you get attention from it and it garners all this other stuff. I like the act in itself,” says Brion, who continues to play a residency in Los Angles at Largo at the Coronet, the new location of the club where he started playing a decade earlier. “It’s kind of amazing. I play as many shows as a lot of friends of mine who tour and are probably more well-known. But I just found this place I liked and I do it and people show up.”
Having an “intimate relationship” with the audience is what prompted Chicago songwriter Ezra Furman to try his first solo acoustic residency at Schubas, every Monday in November. Furman says the residency will give him a chance to play new songs from an album he expects to come out early next year. Instead of treating each date separately from the other, he wants to design all four weeks as a whole to help create “an interesting portrait of where I am as a performer.”
Interplay in progress
But for veteran performers like Fulks, an open-ended residency is a rare opportunity to curate the various incarnations of what they do best over a long stretch of time. Next year Fulks plans to rotate the weekly date through six separate groupings he found successful from this past year — a trio he formed with multi-instrumentalist Robbie Gjersoe and Brooklyn fiddler-singer Jenny Scheinman, for instance. “I want to pick smaller things and then delve deeper into them,” Fulks says.
One setting he plans to carry forward into next year, a harmony duo with country soul singer Nora O’Connor, proved to be such a good match, it led to plans for a duets album on Chicago’s Bloodshot Records.
The interplay between musicians is what makes the Monday nights unique. On a recent night featuring Fulks, Gjersoe and Scheinman, the Lonnie Johnson song “Hot Fingers” was used to detour into a collaborative form of improvisation in which the players created and then traded a three-note riff back and forth until all three pounced on it at the same time, sending it in three different directions.
Situations like that play into the “main goal” of the residency, Fulks says, which is making
him a better musician through small shows that require finely tuned listening skills and instrumental skills.
“I am getting more into the part of working on my instrumental chops, . . .playing into the microphone and not having a deafening decibel level,” he says. “I really like any sense of delicacy and dynamic that asks for quiet. That’s what I’m into as I get into my decrepitude.”