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In the music spotlight: Robbie Fulks

BY JEFF ELBEL | FOR THE SUN-TIMES

Robbie Fulks is duly recognized as Chicago’s premier alt-country music troubadour. At little provocation, however, the masterful guitarist, songwriter and musical interpreter will happily run roughshod across genre-based boundaries. Prior to 2013’s acclaimed “Gone Away Backward,” Fulks’ previous release collected crafty interpretations of Michael Jackson songs. Sounds included Afrobeat guitar, Appalachian banjo, and smoky jazz bass during “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” alone.

This no-holds barred approach informed Fulks’ Monday-night Hideout residency throughout the year. Themes included full sets of Shania Twain and gospel songs, in addition to other unlikely but inspired choices. “I do pun-based mash-up shows sometimes, like Leonard Cohen versus Lynyrd Skynyrd,” says Fulks. “Merle Travis versus Miles Davis was kismet for me. To have a Miles Davis styled horn on some of the Travis songs, or Travis-picking my way through something like ‘Freddie Freeloader’ was really fun and interesting.”

Now, Fulks is readying an even wider-ranging event. His year-end shows will recap 2014 with music, skits, and satire at FitzGerald’s in Berwyn. Fulks keeps his ear to the ground throughout the year for material, and 2014 proved fruitful. “The Chris Christie Bridgegate thing was an easy target,” he says. “The Shinseki scandal comes up. The gubernatorial campaign was instantly in. There’s some personal stuff, too. My beloved grandma died this year, and there’s a tribute to her.”

“It’s a short life and a long time underground,” sang Fulks on his “I’ll Trade You Money for Wine.” The urge to celebrate life while possible fuels Fulks’ notorious “Rap of the Dead.”

The 10-minute segment name-checks the year’s dearly departed with both affection and wicked wit. 2013’s rap mentioned local figures including disc jockey Larry Lujack and original Svengoolie Jerry Bishop. Fulks’ rapid-fire delivery was spiked with zingers like, “Siskel and Ebert, together again.”

Regulars know they’re seeing something special. Fulks spends most of November developing material that is only performed at these shows. He writes a dozen new songs, in addition to skits and the lengthy rap. “I’m getting to the age where it’s a challenge as a feat of memorization,” he says, laughing.

Fulks plans a new album for 2015. He’s keeping most of the material under wraps, although “Fare Thee Well, Carolina Gals” has appeared in recent sets. “I can’t think of any others I’ve been playing,” he says. “I want to keep it a pleasant surprise, hopefully.”

Robbie Fulks Raps Up 2014, 9 p.m. Dec. 26-27, FitzGerald’s, 6615 Roosevelt, Berwyn. Tickets $20. (708) 788-2118; fitzgeraldsnightclub.com.

Jeff Elbel is a local freelance writer. Email: elbel.jeff@gmail.com