REVIEW: Paul Rhodes’s verdict on Jake Xerxes Fussell, Fulford Arms, York, May 9

Jake Xerxes Fussell: “Full of songs that said much with little”. Picture: Paul Rhodes

PARED down, with a little extra off for good measure, American folk singer Jake Xerxes Fussell’s gig was the epitome of economy. Two expertly measured sets totalling 75 minutes, full of songs that said much with little.

Dressed in the standard-issue cap and sneakers, he sat with only his amplifier on stage and a full house for company. A packed crowd on a Monday evening surely means that Fussell’s star is on the rise.

Fussell is part of the new, new folk revival, taking tunes from the recent and more distant past, then subtly updating them to ring true today. “Folk music comes from the internet, at least that’s what I tell the young folk,” he deadpanned in a rare conversational moment.

Fussell wears the obvious dedication to his craft and the research he puts into selecting material lightly (this is a man who was raised in the American South on folk music and did a masters degree on fiddle music from the Choctaw people, hitherto neglected in research on “southern music”). Put it this way: he knows his onions.

He was careful too not to sing tunes that he has no right to sing (slavery ballads being an obvious example), and he sagely pieced together a setlist that was in the best of taste. The material was woven from American folk tales, cousins or perhaps blood kin of those who inspired a previous generation when Harry Smith alchemised his three majestic volumes. Each song was simply told, with Fussell’s Fender Telecaster and warm baritone voice never over-reaching.

His was a sound that stayed with you, long after he strode unassumingly off stage without messing around with an encore. Like a bourbon from his native Georgia, his warming sound can get to a man’s vitals.

Pick of the 13-strong crop were Raggy Lee, Jubilee and River St Johns – each perfect, tuneful and timeless. In truth, if you liked one, you would have liked them all, as the sound and tempos were pretty similar.

Stagecraft and between-song stories? Not so much as a Coo Coo bird. This was probably the only major bum note, as Fussell’s performance never really became a fully fledged show – one where the audience leave knowing more about the songs, his craft or the man singing them. A missed opportunity that dulled what had otherwise been a fine old-time evening.

Review by Paul Rhodes

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