“And the things I don’t remember
Don’t matter anymore
And the things I need to do
Are all waiting at the door
So don’t answer the door
Don’t pick up the phone
Don’t leave me here
Cause I hate to be aloneBetween love everlasting
And meaningless rhyme
Sits feeling good for the very first time”– John Fullbright, “Very First Time”
I don’t even know where to begin. I had a hell of a time just deciding on an opening lyric because there were too many heart-clutchers to choose from.
But let’s start in 2013 …
I’d love to say I was tuned in to the Oklahoma music scene in the late aughts when John Fullbright first made moves, but I wasn’t too far behind his 2012 debut studio release. A year after the tweet above, having hosted a grand total of two shows, I reached out to John’s agent for the first time. And bless GiGi’s heart, because she has been very politely replying to my inquiries since I was an absolute rookie and she didn’t once express disdain at the idea of sending her GRAMMY-nominated client to plug into the 8-channel mixer in my dining room.
So I kept asking. For four years. I asked after fellow Oklahomie John Moreland played my house, I asked when the series switched from house concerts to a public listening room, and I asked again when I started working on my schedule for our upcoming shows at The Green Room. I thought my odds were gradually improving as the series grew but I was a little shocked when I asked about 2020 plans and GiGi said there was an opening in John’s route … and it was just two months away. The date fit at the exact midpoint between two other shows on our schedule, and even more fortuitously, it would turn out to be our 50th event.
It was totally unexpected and completely perfect. Sort of like when I discovered John’s music in the first place.
So, right. On to the show.
I’d watched countless live performances to cull promos for the concert and listened to Live at The Blue Door so many times, and I’d even seen John play in person before, but I still wasn’t prepared for what happened in that room. I’m totally daunted by the work of describing all the factors that went into this night being so powerfully beautiful. John’s work was the largest contributor, of course, but there was also an amazing group of people radiating support, there were the 49 shows leading up to it, there was all the history wrapped up in the set list.
And there was the band! Stephen Lee, Paddy Ryan, and Aaron Baylor weren’t just fantastic musicians; as they played out the last night of their 10-day run, they brought personality and passion throughout the set. Plus they were just the nicest guys, which I swear makes the music sound even better.
I hadn’t met John before that night and I wouldn’t claim to know him well now, but if you made me place a bet on it, I’d say he’s the humblest genius I’ve ever encountered. I don’t know how that happened — probably growing up literally in Woody Guthrie’s shadow didn’t hurt — but it makes for a performer who seems like he’s sharing a secret rather than showing off.
And that’s a pretty incredible feat, considering what he’s capable of doing. John Fullbright could be making a living at any number of the things he just stacks on top of each other like a giant musical Dagwood: post-doc-level songwriting, vocals that run the entire gamut from heartbreaker to ass-shaker, piano-playing with a natural, effortless charm that clearly involved 50,000 hours of practice, and hell he didn’t even pack the accordion for this trip.
I could tell you the set list for both generous halves of the evening, but the sum was something more magical than the inventory of its parts. It did certainly add to the sauce to have John’s work set off by curated covers ranging from Leiber & Stoller to Bob Dylan to Hoyt Axton (played in the style of Dr. John).
It’s nothing original to say that John has the air of another era, that his lyrical and musical maturity expand far beyond his years (“Mom!” my 15-year-old exclaimed when seeing him on video for the first time, “He’s a BABY!”), but seeing him perform also makes it clear that he’s a playful, hilarious, fun-as-hell artist who really, in the grand scheme of things, is just getting started.
And honestly, I’m going to have to jack up my cardio or my heart won’t be able to take much more. Here’s another little something from the wayback machine …
If you’ll forgive an even more personal note than usual … I wrote that tweet after listening to Songs for the first time, and I’m pretty sure it was “When You’re Here” that got me. I was right between the tough ending of a long relationship and a cautious year into a new one. That song, maybe more than any I’d ever heard, captured that feeling, the weariness of what had gone before mixed with the indefatigable hope of what might be. I won’t quote the whole thing here, but god.
So four years later, when I found myself in double the weariness but with much less hope, I came back to that record. It broke me all the way down, but still, the truth of it was healing. And hearing it played in front of me, in essentially my living room, was medicine I never dreamed I’d get.
(Also, how absolutely delightful is Aaron on bass back there? Slow jamming the blues.)
Literally the only flaw of the entire evening was that it had to end. After a solo mini-set that had the entire room held in sacred silence, John called the band back up and tore through a 25-minute closing and encore that brought the house down. I’m not posting video of that here, however, because that was a gift just for that sweet group of people taking it in with their own ears and lungs and feet (besides, YouTube can’t do it justice anyway).
Instead, I’m bringing this to a close with John alone, sharing a song inspired by a time he was reminded that the whole universe can change depending on how you look at it.
When people thank me for putting on the shows it makes me uncomfortable, because I know that I’m getting more out of them than anyone else. I don’t just get to enjoy the performances, but I get to stand in the back and see every elated face, every tear wiped away, every arm wrapped around a loved one in silent solidarity.
From my perspective, our 50th show was inevitably one of reflection and gratitude, and I can’t think of an artist who would have suited the evening more perfectly. Every moment John was on stage reminded me how ridiculously, beautifully lucky it is to experience genuine connection between people, and how work like his makes that feel so easy.
Thanks for coming by, John. I still can’t believe that night came true.
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