I’m a little taken aback at the critical responses I’ve seen for Robbie Fulks’s new (affordably priced) double-live Revenge!, which can’t seem to reconcile the country singer’s wry, sarcastic sense of humor with his purportedly sincere passion for classic songcraft. Some have even gone so far as to insinuate that Fulks was making fun of the traditions in which he so deftly trades. What? The trouble with live records has always been that’s its nigh impossible to replicate the experience of seeing the performer for one’s self as part of a sweaty, teeming mob of people you simultaneously identify with and resent. But listening to Revenge!, it should be obvious that Fulks’s cheeky antics aren’t antithetical to the chaste and sacred heritage of country and western, because the whole idea of country being chaste and sacred is bullshit. Remember Hee-Haw? “Flushed From the Bathroom of Your Heart”? A man should be able to share the stage with Hazel Dickens one night, and play a cover of Cher’s “Believe” the next, without causing confused pandemonium in the halls of criticdom. Unlike a whole lot of live documents, Revenge! is legitimately entertaining, inviting at-home listeners into the experience witnessed by those in the audience, rather than excluding them from it.
The number-one thorn in the side of some writers seems to be the studio-recorded opening track, “On the Road”, where Fulks and band delight in barbershop harmonies about the toils and triumphs of touring, with a few pee jokes thrown in, “Taking it town to town / Wherever the fans are / Spreading our hillbilly sound / Just like a cancer, HA!” The song then winds down to feature a mock phone call between Yep Roc’s president and Fulks, where the former explains that the label is in need of some new record, fast and cheap, leading the latter to the solution of a live album, the ultimate music industry stopgap product. It’s not a track you’ll want to listen to more than once or twice, but it’s a good introduction to Fulks’s self-effacing humor, and a fun conceit for releasing Revenge!, taking the piss out of both the Meeting People Is Easy and rock-god fantasy notions of the music industry. Plus, like the opening credit montage to a movie, it lets you get settled in your chair before the show really starts.
So onto the show: the first disc of Revenge! is a rollicking electric set recorded in Champaign, Illinois, and blasts off with “You Shouldn’t Have”, from Fulks’s ill-fated major-label Let’s Kill Saturday Night. The song sets up a string of solidly constructed tunes full of clever hooks energetically performed by a crack band. There’s real sweat and conviction in “Mad at a Girl”, tangible exuberance in the honky-tonkin’ new songs “Fixin’ to Fall” and “Cigarette State” (with it’s excellent line “Alabama’s grand / The state, not the band”). “You Don’t Mean It” is the one hiccup, an otherwise serviceable mid-tempo ballad that breaks up the rowdiness of disc one.
The second disc is from an acoustic set Fulks played in Chicago last November. The stripped-down intimacy serves the material well, which includes originals like the ancient-sounding “In Bristol Town One Bright Day” to the aforementioned Cher cover, complete with faux pitch-correction. The crowed is reverent for the former and amused by the latter — but the two songs demonstrate just a small segment of the musical range Fulks traverses with respect and humor. Elsewhere, from the folk instrumental “President Garfield’s Hornpipe/Suza” to the defiant “I Like Being Left Alone” to the humorous asides and stories, Fulks and band make it clear that fun doesn’t necessarily mean easy, and that entertainment doesn’t have to be predictable or pious. Closing with the traditional “Away Out on the Old Saint Sabbath”, made popular by A.P. Carter, the band attacks the song with as much joy and gusto as their more swaggering originals, joy which is clearly heard and passed on even via the limitations of disc or download. And that’s the sweetest revenge of all.