On a run of four gigs in four nights (Hey, it’s a dirty job but someone’s got to do it), I find myself at Islington Assembly Halls, just down the road from the Union Chapel and thankfully these days, a single train ride away. The last time I was here it was for Howe Gelb, a blast from my musical past with my attendance that night egged on by a fellow musical cosmonaut, with whom I’ve been trading musical Top Trumps for 25 years or more. Tonight, however, I’m flying solo and bound for something new, or more appropriately someone new, as the headline act is John Fullbright, whose second album has just landed on my doormat. There’ll be much more on that to come, but in the meantime…
John is in the UK riding tandem with Jarrod Dickenson, a good match and a good billing. Pre-show thoughts are that they are simpatico musically yet distinct enough not to tread on each other’s toes. The tour has snaked down from Glasgow and they are both travelling light, with a simple guitar and vocals set up, although for John there is also a piano on stage. Jarrod’s brief performance is good, very well received and he certainly warrants further coverage when things allow. But then after a short interval and with minimum fuss John Fullbright takes the stage.
It’s exactly the same set up, just one man, one guitar and one voice, but from the opening lines of Daydreamer he fills the venue and what follows in the next hour and a half is nothing short of a revelation. The chorus, “Dream me a better world and I’ll find a better way,” rings out setting the standard for a stunning collection of songs, delivered with a voice that cuts along the edge of high emotions. There’s just the right amount of gravel and grit to suggests a soul singer at heart and he can hit the high notes too, powerful, sulphurous, rapt and achingly lovely by turn.
It transpires that John is also a very fine guitarist, harmonica player and when he sits at the piano he slays that too, but the new album is simply called Songs and therein lies the rub. He jokes about his craft, playing Until You Were Gone for the new record and then telling us, “I’m not anti happy, but I am pro sad. The very first rule of creative writing is that you have to have conflicts. If everything is going well in your story it just gets boring.” He continues the theme explaining, “I am anti hopeless songs and I have written a couple of hopeful songs, but not enough to ruin my credibility. To illustrate the point he plays us Keeping Hope Alive, But with the warning, “Don’t take it too seriously.”
The set mixes tracks from the first album amidst the new material from the bluesy howl of Satan And St Paul to the bitter, broken heart of Forgotten Flowers. He constantly punctures the serious subjects with genuinely funny asides and amidst the lovelorn, god fearing and fickle hand of fate there are moments of genuine empathy and understanding that you latch onto, clever lines and real poetry tumble forth. He even admits that, “When you write songs clarity is rare but this song was like finding blue sky after a long spell of rain,” before giving us The Very First Time.
Fat Man is brilliant with its barbed hooks, while High Road is a genuine heartbreaker of a story song, which reminds us that not everything tonight is autobiography. As the set concludes with a barnstorming Gawd Above, he humbly acknowledges, “Thanks for coming there are so many other things you could have done.” That may well be true, but I doubt any of those present would have traded this evening in. As if to seal the deal, the encore is a romp through the blues classic Ain’t Nobody’s Business that features a piano and harmonica duet, with the mouth harp following the melody of the cascading keys. Pure showmanship it may be, but also unbelievable talent.
As I leave I’m sending a text to my fellow musical adventurer who is Bristol based, suggesting he moves hell or high water to get to St. Bonaventure’s the following night as that’s where John Fullbright will be. We are due to meet again soon and I know one CD that will be in the player, after all, this evening has proved, John Fullbright, one man, one voice, one guitar, one piano, one harmonica and Songs, what more do you need?
Review by: Simon Holland
The good news is that if you missed John this time around you’ll get another chance as he’s back for more dates around the release of Songs, which is due on July 21st.
18 – GATESHEAD, Summer Tyne Americana Festival
19 – MANCHESTER, Ruby Lounge
20 – SHEFFIELD, Greystones
21 – BRIGHTON, Green Door
22 – LEICESTER, The Musician
24 – GUILFORD, St. Mary’s Church
25 – WINCHESTER, The Railway
26 – HUNTINGDON, Secret Garden Party
27 – PERTH, Southern Fried Festival