EDMOND – Oklahoma has produced more than its share of music luminaries, especially for such a small and humble country crossroads.
And any lingering doubts that John Fullbright deserves to be counted among the brightest of those starry stars were blown into hot, tiny bits Saturday night in a veritable supernova of virtuosity.
“I have no doubt that in a short time, John Fullbright will be a household name in American music,” Oklahoma-born and bred songwriting legend Jimmy Webb said a few years ago.
And Fullbright, who’s just a few weeks past his 26th birthday, showed why he already deserves such high praise at his sold-out home-state show at Mitchell Hall Theater at the University of Central Oklahoma. The concert was celebrating the release of the Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter’s sophomore studio album, “Songs,” which isn’t due out until May 27 but already has earned positive notices from the Wall Street Journal, American Songwriter and Country Weekly.
The Bearden resident illustrated mastery of guitar, voice, piano and harmonica — he’s even a good whistler — but his show, like his new album, was truly about the songs, whether he was spewing brimstone with the bluesy “Gawd Above,” which he rocked during last year’s Grammys Pre-Telecast Ceremony, or pouring pure emotion into the thoughtful ballad “She Knows,” one of the many new cuts he introduced from his latest batch of “Songs.”
Although most of more than 600 loyal fans in attendance had yet to hear his forthcoming album, Fullbright had no trouble holding them in his thrall when he took the stage with just an acoustic guitar and a compelling pair of contemplative new cuts, “Write a Song” and “Until You Were Gone.”
“Backstage … it’s more a family reunion than anything right now,” Fullbright said as he strapped on his harmonica holder and his three-man backing band joined him on stage. “And you guys filled it up here, too. Wow.”
Although he launched his career at Oklahoma City’s Blue Door, Fullbright’s renown has outgrown the respected but tiny listening room owned by his manager, Greg Johnson. If he stays on his current trajectory, the rising star won’t be playing anything as small as Mitchell Hall for long, either, even if the intimate theater is well-suited to his musical storytelling.
Backed by the stellar trio of guitarist Terry “Buffalo” Ware, drummer Giovanni Carnuccio III and upright bassist David Leach, Fullbright showed off his impressive versatility as he jumped from the breezy classic-sounding rockers “Going Home” and “Never Cry” to the folky musings of “Keeping Hope Alive” and “Happy” to the bluesy declarations of “Jericho” and “Satan and St. Paul.”
“I’d never been to St. Paul when I wrote it in my house in Bearden,” said Fullbright, who often filled spaces between songs with keen observations or funny stories, including an uproarious tale about confessing that fun fact to the audience at what he believed was his first St. Paul, Minn., show, only to have the crowd there get very cold and quiet.
“I was informed several times shortly thereafter that I was in Minneapolis,” he added as the crowd laughed with him.” I didn’t see a sign. It wasn’t like ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ it wasn’t like everything went to Technicolor when I got (there).”
Fullbright’s show suddenly got a lot more colorful halfway through “All the Time in the World,” as he literally laid down his guitar and attacked the keyboard of a grand piano with stunning skill and ferocity, kindling the blues-rock barn-burner so effectively the crowd got to its collective feet in a spontaneous mid-set ovation.
While Fullbright impressed with a guitar in his hand, he made jaws drop with his fleet-fingered capability on keys. He caressed the ivories on the new ballad “When You’re Here,” cranked up a carnival-esque vibe on “Fat Man” and teased pure feeling out of the keys with the tender “The One That Lives Too Far,” all the while crooning in that distinctive voice that’s surprisingly smooth and strong for such a shy and soft-spoken fellow. I’m pretty sure he even had his boots up on the keyboard by the end of his band’s riotous rendition of Porter Grainger’s blues standard “Ain’t Nobody’s Business.”
Fullbright channeled Webb with his closer, “High Road,” a heartrending story-song that actually brought some fans to tears. It maybe be new, but the way Fullbright wrote and performs it, the poignant yarn feels timeless, resplendent with vivid details and universal resonance.
Fortunately, though, Fullbright didn’t leave his appreciative audience with heavy hearts but returned with his bandmates for an electrifying encore. He also invited his opening acts – fellow Oklahoman Tom Skinner (who also joined him on “Jericho”) and Austin, Texas-based Blue Door favorite Michael Fracasso, a pair of seasoned singer-songwriters who has clearly influenced Fullbright with their outstanding songcraft – to join in on the raucous confessional “Saved.”
His album release is about to whisk Fullbright on tour across the country and on to Europe, but the road leads back home in July for his annual pilgrimage to the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival in Okemah. Mark your calendars now, because such a rare homegrown talent is certainly not to be missed.
“Write a Song”
“Until You Were Gone”
“Never Cry Again”
“Satan and St. Paul”
“Keeping Hope Alive”
“All the Time in the World”
“When You’re Here”
“The One That Lives Too Far”
“Ain’t Nobody’s Business”