I finally got over to the main stage around 5:00 p.m. and saw most of the set from Austin-based Los T Birds. Playing Tejano and Conjunto music, these guys had a good sound and a fun act. I arrived just as they took a turn for straightahead country, singing a successful version of George Jones' "Today I Started Loving You Again" and then a slightly less successful version of Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues." After "The Cowboy Cumbia," they played a Ramon Ayala norteno. Then they talked about the moment when the Mexican and American and Texan musics got all mixed up, and they played "Wooly Bully" much to the delight of various members of the audience who either were already dancing or wanted to be dancing.
I was a particular fan of Dr. Sonny Trujillo, the Professor of Accordion, who didn't move around all that much but sure could play! Dr. Julian Limon Fernadez, the president of the group and Dean of Drums and Percussionology, thanked the Virgen de Guadalupe (who resides in his bass drum) for keeping the rain and wind away, and the group played a cumbia estilo texas to end their set.
I was walking back home to get some food when the sound of brother-and-sister duo Kate and James Hathaway convinced me to turn around. They were singing a mournful country gothic number with shades of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, so I figured I would see what they were all about. With James on guitar and Kate on the Andean charango and making good use of their sibling harmonies, they were worth catching. I particularly liked a song with the chorus, "I don't know where I'm running from or to / But I'm running from you." I liked it because they made that lyric sound much more heartfelt than the novelty country lyric that it might be. They also had the accompaniment of a lovely sunset.
Then I did go home for dinner.
And then I came back for Robbie Fulks. And what a show he put on! With his gangly legs tapping out the beat, his bluegrass-trained hot fingers flying up and down his fretboard and his big smile and witty words keeping the crowd entertained between songs, this was non-stop entertainment par excellence, starting with the band playing an introduction for the WWHP radio DJ who was introducing them!
The running joke of the night was the fact that this was a folk festival. Robbie said, "Look, I'm not a folk guy whittling in the woods or drawing murals of tractor accidents... I'm not sure why they booked me." And later, "Maybe we can insert some comments about public policy? Or ask them to sing along? That's very folk, right? Well, let's play this one in a laid back style." And finally, "Maybe they booked me because my last name is Fulks, and they got confused, huh? Well, I'm glad my last name isn't Hospice... That would make for some tough gigs."
The folkiest part of the set was a great version of U. Utah Phillips' "Orphan Train" featuring the harmony vocals of bassist Mike Fredrickson back-to-back with Benny Martin's "That's a Good Enough Reason," during which Ed the drummer beat our the rhythm on the microphone stand. The Benny Martin song is about the way that a woman looks in a miniskirt being "a good enough reason" to be in love with her. As Robbie said, "Benny Martin just wrote about any subject that entered into his weird head.
Noticing that the crowd wasn't exactly overflowing with UIUC students, Robbie said, "It's great to be here on the edge of campus. We have a lot of people under the age of 75 here! You guys are majors in hippieology, huh?"
Every song in the set was pretty terrific, and the musicianship in the four-piece band was ace, whether Robbie was talking the solo himself on his acoustic guitar or Grant Tye playing extremely tasteful solos on the electric. They played tight but had a lot of fun, and they all produced excellent solos on the set-closing "I Want to be Mama'd." (Robbie did, as you maybe can see if you look in the lower righthand corner of the photo here, sit down during the drum solo.)
In a show full of non-stop awesomeness, there were nonetheless three highlights for me:
- Robbie introduced the song "No Girls Allowed" by saying, "This next song is a hillbilly song. Short of opening a still and getting arrested or going to a NASCAR event, this is as hillbilly as it gets." The turnaround lyric of the song is "No girls allowed -- just women," which feeds into the most brilliant lyrics that I've heard in 2009, I think:
Yeah, my fiancée,Brilliant. That is brilliant.
She’ll know some Bronte,
And a little music beyond Beyonce.
- They started getting all spectral and new-agey on the guitars and symbols, and then when Robbie started singing, "She was more like a beauty queen from a movie scene," the crowd went nuts, realizing that they were playing Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean." They played it as if Lou Reed had written it, and it was awesome. Apparently, Robbie has a whole forthcoming album of Michael Jackson songs. Watch out, World!
- And then the encore was -- with urging from the crowd, including maybe six or seven shouts from yours truly -- "Let's Kill Saturday Night," and it was just perfect -- what a great song and what a rockin' performance. I don't know how I'm going to get it out of my head, and I don't know if I want to.
The whole set list was as follows:
- Goodbye, Good Lookin'
- Parallel Bars
- Georgia Hard
- It's Always Raining Somewhere
- Cigarette State
- No Girls Allowed
- Tears Only Run One Way
- The Buck Starts Here
- Rock Bottom, Pop. 1
- Still a Lot of Loving (??)
- Orphan Train
- That's a Good Enough Reason
- Busy Not Crying
- Every Kind of Music But Country
- Billie Jean
- She Took a Lot of Pills and Died
- Can't Win for Losing You
- I Want to be Mama'd
- ENCORE: Let's Kill Saturday Night
Yeah, he played a few songs.