Dallas In the beginning, there was nothing.
John Fullbright stepped onto the Poor David's Pub stage Saturday night with an acoustic guitar in hand, but after a few fleeting plucks, he set it aside. His porkpie hat set askance on his 24-year-old head, the Okemah, Okla. native stepped to the microphone and filled the still, silent room with nothing but his voice and Charles Wesley's And Am I Born to Die?.
It was a commanding start to a performance filled with jaw-slackening moments of resplendence, and an approach validated by Fullbright himself midway through his set: "Our job is to make something out of nothing," he said, speaking of songwriters.
Sit and think, for as long and as hard as you need to, about the last time you witnessed anyone make something compelling out of negative space. It's an exceptionally rare, and rarely fulfilled, gift that a precious few musicians possess. The ability to spin tales that pierce your heart and engage the mind, and to do so with the casual elegance befitting someone who has been hammering out songs for twice as long as Fullbright has been alive is nothing less than astonishing. He is, simply, a wonder to behold.
Given his roots, the freshly Grammy-nominated Fullbright is frequently tagged as the heir apparent to Woody Guthrie, and while it makes for good copy, the comparison doesn't quite stick. For one thing, Fullbright's a lover, not a fighter. His songs ache with the understanding of a man who has crawled inside love (and, more expansively, spirituality) and struggled to understand the inner workings. Fullbright isn't railing against injustices, or standing up for the common man, so much as he's pleading for a level playing field in relationships.
And while Fullbright certainly pays homage to the folk genre, his original material, taken from his 2012 debut From the Ground Up, and covers are wonderfully unbound by a particular sonic style. He strikes the listener as a musical omnivore, someone consuming the greats (Bob Dylan, whose It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry got a scorching work-out near the end of Fullbright's first set) and the lesser-knowns (David Halley's exquisite Rain Just Falls) with equivalent fervor. Rock, country, blues, folk -- they're all equal in Fullbright's eyes.
With guitarist Terry "Buffalo" Ware, drummer Giovanni Carnuccio III and bassist David Leach at his back, Fullbright, dressed in all black (except for his white leather shoes) and who moved easily from acoustic guitar to piano and back, held the crowd in the palm of his hand throughout the night. The whole evening felt like a turning point (Saturday marked Fullbright's debut as a headliner at Poor David's, a station of the cross for serious singer-songwriters), yet none of his deftly modulated performance felt overworked or marked by uncertainty.
Not that he wasn't quick with self-deprecating asides, and a worldliness about his art and life belying his relative youth. After admitting he didn't write much on the road, and just as quickly remarking driving in Dallas didn't do wonders for his train of thought, he aired out a handful of unreleased songs, including the heartbreaking When You're Here, Never Cry Again and Not Going Anywhere.
A 30-minute intermission gave way to the night's unexpected surprise: Dixie Chick and Courtyard Hound Martie Maguire materialized during the second set to join Fullbright and the band for a full-tilt reading of the Oklahoman's searing epic Jericho. She offered sparkling harmony vocals and sharp fiddle work, but didn't speak a word to the crowd.
But then, she didn't really need to. Her mere presence spoke volumes. It was, just as much as the stage upon which he found himself, an affirmation of his incredible skill, and what's more, his position as one of the most promising singer-songwriters to emerge in a generation. (Speaking of the next generation, Poor David's owner David Card's daughter Amelia offered up a pleasing 30-minute opening set, and Card credited her with bringing Fullbright to his attention in the first place.)
John Fullbright is just getting started creating something from nothing. What a privilege it will be to watch him develop into one of Oklahoma's genuine musical treasures, a formidable regional talent, and someone for whom brilliance is as simple as breathing.