One of the things I most look forward to with the arrival of autumn (aside from a break from the 100 degree temperatures) is the onset of the fall concert series at All Souls Acoustic Coffeehouse. Now set to launch its 12th season, the small staff behind the All Souls concerts has grown the series from a handful of shows catering to a small but loyal audience of folk and singer/songwriter fans to one of the most interesting series in town with a lineup that consistently spans from well known names to more obscure, but no less talented songwriters.
Over its eleven year history, the series has welcomed a broad spectrum of songwriters, from heralded Oklahoma artists like Jimmy LaFavre and Kevin Welch to nationally known artists like Todd Snider, Peter Case, Monte Montgomery, Ray Wylie Hubbard, and Hayes Carll. Wrapped up in the middle have been a number of amazing performers ranging from local talent to regional and national artists that sit just outside of "household name" status. Regardless of the name, however, the talent has been truly amazing with each show I've been fortunate enough to attend since becoming aware of the series roughly four years ago.
Looking back, the series began when Anitra Lavanhar (wife of All Souls Pastor, Marlon Lavanhar) saw a void in the local music scene after relocating to Tulsa from Boston. After calling a few friends like Peter Mulvey and Chris Smithers in to recreate shows similar to the ones she missed from the East coast coffeehouse circuit, the series was officially underway and Scott Aycock and Richard Higgs (of the Folk Salad radio broadcast) got involved, as well as a small staff that included Dennis McGilvray.
Lavanhar pulled back due to personal reasons following the fifth season, but gave her blessing to continue on and remained in the background as Julie Watson was approached to join the team after bringing Kevin Welch to Tulsa for a show at the Mayo. Since then, the series has continued to grow, consistently bringing in bigger names and evolving the series with each new season.
Initially established with more of a folk music orientation, the series has become more focused on singer/songwriters as it evolved, but has refused to be pigeonholed into any particular niche. Even the acoustic nature of the "Acoustic Coffeehouse" series has been flexible as full band performances have also been featured with artists such as Malford Milligan and Paul Thorn over the past couple of seasons, giving the audience a chance to experience the shows in an intimate setting of All Souls' Emerson Hall while giving the artists a broad dynamic flexibility.
In recent years, the season's opening concert has been among the most exciting of the season with shows by Paul Barrere and Fred Tackett (of Little Feat) and Jimmy LaFavre quickly coming to mind as amongst the most memorable of the past few seasons. As the 2012 fall season begins to roll out, this year's series opener promises to be no less memorable as All Souls welcomes the return of John Fullbright for a show next Friday night, August 24.
Just a couple years ago, I spoke with Fullbright as he came to All Souls to open for Robbie Fulks and Robbie Gjersoe for a January 2010 concert to launch the winter/spring series. At that point, Fullbright was just breaking into the music scene and had yet to build a following or much recognition in Tulsa.
Humble and understated, Fullbright explained his path to folk music by saying, "I grew up in Okemah, graduated high school, tried going to college, grabbed a keyboard, dropped out and joined a rock band. The rock band got too loud, so I grabbed a guitar and now I'm doing this. ..."
Whatcha Thinkin’? Singer/songwriter John Fullbright preparing to kick off the All Souls Acoustic Coffeehouse August 24.
What he failed to mention in that summary was that his rock band experience was, in fact, a year's tenure as keyboard player for Mike McClure, one of Red Dirt's most respected (and eclectic) songwriters. Although you might not have heard it at the time, McClure's influence was inescapable and would show itself more as Fullbright continued to grow as a writer and performer.
Back then, Fullbright was soft-spoken, not only in person, but on stage as well. Two years of performing and heavy touring have changed that, however. In person, Fullbright is still every bit as humble and self-deprecating. On stage, however, he has developed a commanding presence and a magnetism that extends into his music.
Fullbright's debut album, From the Ground Up, was released on May 8 and immediately garnered rave reviews, including features in the LA Times and Wall Street Journal as well as featured exposure on National Public Radio. A hybrid of folk, blues and rock, Fullbright ties it all together with a distinct Red Dirt touch to create and album that will likely land on multiple "Best of" lists at the end of the year.
Opening track "Gawd Above" may be the best example of just how much Fullbright has grown over the past couple of years. Based on a blues progression, the track has a distinctly rock swagger, but truly soars on a combination of his lyrics and a soaring growl that rarely surfaced a mere two years ago. Perhaps more than anything else, it shows just how comfortable Fullbright has become in his role as singer and songwriter.
He is now delivering his songs with a distinct authority that comes through whether he's singing in a soft, folkish refrain or bursting forth with a soulful growl. Likewise, the new album has allowed Fullbright to expand beyond just a folk arrangement, but tap into blues, country and Red Dirt to provide a portrait of a songwriter that is already highly impressive, but has just begun to scratch the surface of what will come.
Looking forward in the schedule, Gary Louris (of The Jayhawks) will be playing a special show on October 18 that will encompass nearly 30 years of his songwriting. All Souls then welcomes Peter Mulvey, who is touring in support of his 14th album, Nine Days Wonder, for a show on Saturday, November 17. The fall series wraps up with a visit from Steve Forbert, who has interwoven folk, rock, country and R&B during a long career that truly launched with the releases of his sophomore album, Jack Rabbit Slim, in 1979.
Although this year's series doesn't open until next week, you'll want to get your tickets right away as the John Fullbright concert is already close to selling out. Tickets are only $15 and can be purchased online at Ticketstorm.com or in person at Starship Records (1241 S. Lewis Ave.) and Café Cubana (1340 E. 15th St.). Get your now to see one of Red Dirt's hottest young artists before he's headlining even bigger venues. Doors open at 7pm and each show starts at 7:30pm in Emerson Hall at All Souls Unitarian Church, 2952 S. Peoria Ave.
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