It would be easy to label Sturgill Simpson
with a "retro-country" tag if one were to simply hear his deep twang or take a look at his relatively unassuming stage demeanor. But the 36-year-old isn't likely to show up in a Nudie suit or incorporate yodeling into his sound like a modern Roy Rogers wannabe any time soon. If anything, he seems likely to push his sound more into the psychedelic-cowboy realm he explores on his stunning 2014 album, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
, and throughout the nearly two-hour show he delivered in Spokane Tuesday night.
Backed by a five-piece band, the winner of the 2015 Artist of the Year award from the Americana Music Association
is on the road in the final throes of his two years touring in support of Metamodern Sounds
, but there were no signs of exhaustion or even slowing down from Simpson as he led his charges through more than 20 songs of outlaw rebellion and, unusually for any genre, metaphysics and varying states of perception. The album opener, "Turtles All The Way Down," features lyrics like "There's a gateway in our mind that leads somewhere out there beyond this plane, where reptile aliens made of light cut you open and pull out all your pain." So, ya, this isn't exactly tear-in-your-beer country we're talking about.
But Simpson can do that, too, which makes him a favorite of traditionalists as well as those on board with his lyrical and musical flights of fancy. Simpson opened his show at a packed Knitting Factory with a heartbreaking tale, "Sitting Here
Without You," featuring lines like: "I'm all alone in the night, and I know you ain't coming back to me. There's a moon over me so bright, It lights up my sorrow for everyone to see." If the audience weren't so geeked up for Simpson's arrival on stage, they might have started crying at those sentiments.
Simpson lets the music do the talking for the most part, rarely chatting with the audience save for introducing the band toward show's end, the occasional "thank you" and, at one point after noticing a particularly noisy crew of revelers in the balcony, asking "Is that the cocaine hot tub party up there?" Instead of chit-chat, he simply pushed the band from song to song with nary a pause, playing nearly every song from Metamodern Sounds and his debut, High Top Mountain
, along with a good batch of cover songs from the likes of country royalty like Lefty Frizzell ("I Never Go Around Mirrors"), the Stanley Brothers ("Medicine Springs") and the Osbourne Brothers ("Listening to the Rain").
The best covers he did, though, were non-country cuts that show Simpson draws inspiration from a wide swath of music history, not just his Nashville peers and predecessors. "You Don't Miss Your Water" was made famous by Memphis soul man Otis Redding, and Simpson's version pushed his voice to place altogether different than his more twangy tunes. And his take on New Wave classic "The Promise," originally done by When In Rome, took a synth-heavy up-tempo song and turned it into a slow ballad, and it worked remarkably well.
Simpson's own songs, though, were definitely the highlights of the night. "Long White Line" could have been released by any number of '70s outlaw-country cats like Johnny Paycheck, and was thrilling to hear three songs into the night. "Life of Sin," as in "Thank God for this here life of sin," was excellent coming on the heels of "Some Days," on which the band jammed out a tasty extended version of the tune, particularly lead guitarist Laur Joamets on the slide-guitar. "Living the Dream," the spacey "It Ain't All Flowers," "Just Let Go," "Voices" and "Poor Rambler" were all delivered with passion and style, as if they were brand new tunes rather than ones he's been doing for a couple years at least.
As he approached the show's end, Simpson inspired the closest thing to a singalong moment with his hectic "You Can Have the Crown," a tune that starts with the narrator spending "all my money on weed and pills" and going on to avow "I sing 'em real pretty, I sing 'em real sad. All the people in the crowd say" — a moment when most in attendance chimed in to finish the line — "he ain't half bad."
Suffice it to say, Simpson is far better than "half-bad." His songwriting evolution on his albums, and use of a psychedelic-inspired light show and a couple of organ and piano players to abet the guitarists and rhythm section in his band, mark him as a guy who might not even be called "country" much longer. But for now, he's about as good as modern country music gets.