William Fitzsimmons: 13 Apr 2011 – Knoxville, TN

William Fitzsimmons

During bearded, acoustic balladeer William Fitzsimmons’s intimate set at the Square Room, one particularly laughy (and drunk) female fan took every possible opportunity to laugh at the singer’s awkward between-song chatter. So, in order to test out whether or not the lady would laugh at literally anything he said, Fitzsimmons quoted the now legendary Rachel Dratch-starring SNL sketch “Debbie Downer” by remarking, “Feline AIDS: it’s the #1 killer of domesticated housecats.”

The response was a chilling silence, with Fitzsimmons’s own whispery laugh drowning out the awkward crowd reaction. But it was a strange moment for more than just the obvious reasons. Fitzsimmons, an Illinois-based singer/songwriter with four full-length studio albums under his belt, isn’t exactly a go-to guy for laughs. On album, he crafts a shadow, like the early work of his bearded comrade (and idol) Sam Beam, of quiet emotion and intensity, finger-picking and singing in a close-up, breathy sigh, sharing folky secrets in your headphones. His subject matter is typically grim, weighty stuff like death, lost love, and helplessness, but at its core it’s designed to heal broken hearts and mold together damaged spirits.

The crowd, comprised mostly of what appeared to be a string of 14-year-olds in girls’ jeans (both sexes), was glued to the man’s every move, calling out for the “hits” but still savoring every second of whatever he threw out there. Fitzsimmons spanned his own brief history, calling up tracks from his debut, 2005’s minimal Until When We Are Ghosts, up to his new release, the more expansive Gold in the Shadow. As a guy who made his name as a MySpace prowler and relentless self-promoter, Fitzsimmons can boast his biggest claim to fame is scoring an assload of TV licensing deals; his tunes have graced tender scenes in shows like Grey’s Anatomy and One Tree Hill. It’s not a bad way to make a name for oneself, but he’s also learned the hard away about pigeonholing. His songs do all carry similar qualities: relatively sparse, descending melodies, a handful of obvious cyclical chords, a harmony or two for color. Yet he doesn’t shy away from it. At one point during his set, Fitzsimmons poked fun at himself, laughing, “All my songs sound similar anyway.”

The dude has a point. Select moments bordered on the transcendent. Fitzsimmons’s new single, “The Tide Pulls from the Moon”, provided welcome full-band relief (courtesy the moody thunder of his backing band — and openers — Silent Runner), with electric guitars shimmying over stark bass and tom-toms. The spectacular “After Afterall” (from Sparrow) nearly had us all in tears with its straightforward, bleary-eyed post-break-up message of “I still want you / I still need you / After all” arriving like a slap to the face (hankies, anyone?). But, taken as a whole, the show felt like a lovely, repetitive dream in which the same cathartic images, slow motion children jumping puddles, wedding kisses, spring flowers blooming, flash over and over again in decaying loops. It was beautiful but also a bit taxing.

Again, I must turn to the man’s sharp self-deprecating humor. Even when the songs got a bit too sleepy, Fitzsimmons was always there to liven things up with a welcome barb or a well-placed slice of sarcasm. But there was no humor behind his encore (and show) highlight, “Heartless”. Not many artists could turn Kanye West into a straight-faced ballad, but Fitzsimmons rose to the challenge with his intimate acoustic take on West’s Auto-Tuned hit. Minus a “homie” and “bitch” or two, the song sounded completely in Fitzsimmons’ hands. Funny thing is, no one smirked. It was all wide-eyed reverence and close-knit warmth at the Square Room.

At one point in the night, somebody yelled out some hard rock requests (probably “Free Bird”). Fitzsimmons, just as he had the whole evening, took it in stride, smirking all the while behind his acoustic. “Speaking of rock ‘n’ roll, here’s another William Fitzsimmons song” he laughed, as he tuned for another round of gentle finger-picking.