I’ve jokingly referred to John Fullbright as “my man-crush John Fullbright” ever since I first met him earlier this year on Cayamo. His debut album, released a couple of years ago, was a genuine stunner in the Americana community — it earned him a Grammy nomination, not something you often see from newbies in the business — and was my second-favorite album of last year behind Jason Isbell’s “Southeastern.”
Now he’s back with a second album and is touring in support. I saw him Monday in — of all places — the basement bar at Hill Country, a Texas-style BBQ joint in D.C.’s Chinatown. This was a free, solo acoustic gig, marking the first time I had seen Fullbright play without a band, and he again lived up to his promise.
Fullbright to me sounds and looks like someone who hasn’t quite decided where he wants to go musically and how much success he really wants to have — and he might always struggle with those issues. You basically can measure his popularity in concentric circles from his home — he’s the kind of guy who will sell out big rooms in Dallas and Houston, but sometimes struggles to draw a crowd elsewhere. Hill Country was full on a Monday night — but only because of a large fan contingent from Oklahoma and Texas (the old saying: Everybody here is from someplace else.)
Stripped down, some of Fullbright’s first-album songs lose a bit of their power. “Gawd Above” doesn’t have the same hellfire menace; “Jericho” doesn’t swell and fade the way it does with a band to help create tension. But the songs were still powerful. I sat stage right, just a few feet from the front, and spent a lot of time watching Fullbright’s amazing piano playing and being heavily distracted by the nonstop mildly creepy love stare he was getting from a woman I’m guessing is his girlfriend.
Fullbright’s second album is much quieter, more acoustic and considerably more inconsistent than his first — there are a couple of times where it nearly grinds to a contemplative halt amid slow piano pieces — but it still shows a tremendous amount of talent. I feel fairly confident this is the last time I see him in the basement of Hill Country — unless he wants it that way. He spoke at length (and often quite humorously) about his struggles as a songwriter, and it’s hard to say if his move in a softer direction is permanent.
If that’s what he wants, so be it. He’s going to be awfully good, no matter which road he chooses.