Sturgill Simpson. Ogden Theatre. 11.05.15
As the old-timey sounds of The Osborne Brothers’ “Listening to the Rain” bled into the glammy jam of T. Rex’s “The Motivator”, the man who has been called the Savior of Country Music didn’t have much to say about anything at all. It had only been twenty-four hours since Chris Stapleton embarrassed the status quo by sweeping the CMAs (and confusing the hell out of modern country music fans in the process), but if Sturgill Simpson had any thoughts on the subject, he was keeping them close to the vest. Many artists spoke up in support of Stapleton after his incredible night in Nashville. Jason Isbell was all over social media singing his praises, while Miranda Lambert wore a Stapleton shirt when accepting her award for Female Vocalist of the Year. Even the bro-country Entertainer of the Year, Luke Bryan, couldn’t deny the pure power of the bearded one’s performance. The fact that Stapleton asked Justin Timberlake to share the stage with him, yet still managed to sound more “country” than anything else happening in the Bridgestone Arena that night, wasn’t lost on the audience or the press. All the upcoming shows were sold out before the awards ceremony came to a close. And the next morning’s headlines were all about the New “Real County Music” Savior. Stapleton’s life literally changed in a blink of an eye. We’ll see how he deals with that newfound fame, but while the people at the Ogden Theatre were talking about the fabulous upset the night before, Simpson was backstage, and already a little farther down a road that Stapleton is about about to become very familiar with. Simpson may not have won a fistful of CMAs, but he’s taken home his fair share of Americana Awards. Those awards, along with a few late night television spots, provided him the coverage he needed to sell out multiple nights in multiple cities across the country. I’m sure he has some advice he can provide to Stapleton. I’m sure they know each other. I mean, how big can the Country Music Savior circle be? But those are conversations that will have to be taken offline, because when Simpson is on stage, he is a man of very few words. He lets the songs (and his extremely capable band) make the argument for him.
It might have come across as slightly strange when the band took the stage bathed in a kaleidoscope of rainbow colors, but anybody who is familiar with Metamodern Sounds in Country Music knows that while Simpson might sound like your grandfather’s traditional country music of the 60’s and 70’s, his lyrical content has just as much in common with your parents’ psychedelic rock of the same era. Willie Nelson has been a marijuana advocate for quite some time (so it was fitting that the theater turned into a giant hotbox during the cover of “Sad Songs and Waltzes”), but you’d be hard pressed to find a Jennings or Jones song that references LSD, mushrooms, and DMT. Simpson isn’t one to shy away from the hard stuff though, or from bringing a truly mind-expanding vibe to his performances. He also provides unique aspects to his shows in the form of opening acts. When I first saw him in San Francisco earlier this year, he had a DJ collective named Electric Western warm up the crowd the same way they do every Monday night at The 5 Spot in East Nashville. This time he brought Billy Wayne Davis along for the ride. The comedian (who also resides in Nashville) started out with some pretty generic pot smoking bits before moving on to some pretty generic redneck bits, but there were a few gems (“this guy sings weird”) in between. The majority of the audience gave him the respect he deserved, but he had his fair share of hecklers, most of whom lashed out while the disinterested made their way outside for a smoke. His short set wasn’t bad, but I think most of the audience would have preferred a band. Comedy just can’t energize a crowd like live music can. So after another thirty minutes of waiting for the main attraction, Sturgill and his boys were presented with an audience whose excitement was boarding on impatience. And as if to dispel all the hype surrounding him, Simpson opened things up with the extremely understated “Some Days”. Standing perfectly still in one position, with his band surrounding him, he chastised the industry as a whole with lyrics about all those people who only look out for themselves.
“I’m getting pretty tired sitting around and wasting time
I’m tired of taking blame when I ain’t done nothing wrong
I’m tired of other people trying to take what’s mine
And I’m tired of y’all playing dress up and trying to sing them old country songs”
Understated might not be the best word to describe the Sturgill Simpson experience, but it is the word that keeps coming to mind. There is a straightforward simplicity to the way he delivers his songs; it borders on sleepy at times. I don’t mean that in a negative way. It’s just that he’s so damn good at what he does that he almost makes it look too easy. “Some Days” led into “Life of Sin”, before “Sitting Here Without You” led into “Water in a Well”, and before we knew it, he’d worked his way through much of the material from both albums without breaking a sweat. The sound was crisp, the intricacies of his warbling drawl came through clear (well, as clear as his distinct voice can be), and he really opened things up as “Poor Rambler” morphed into “Sharecropper’s Son”, but Simpson’s lack of ego made sure the man never got in the way of the song. The few times he spoke, it was to deliver a quick “Thank you Denver,” or to explain that they “like touring in the West,” because “it’s more mellow and relaxed.” The ‘mellow and relaxed’ nature of the performance allowed for subtle things to make a significant impact on the audience. When he suddenly lifted his guitar into a vertical angle during a certain jam session, it invoked verbal encouragement from the crowd. When the volume was kicked up a notch for “Living the Dream”, there was a spontaneous fit of clapping and stomping. And when Laur Joamets was given the opportunity to shine, he did so like a brazen, 80’s hair metal guitar legend. In fact, during “It Ain’t All Flowers”, Joamets’ antics lit such a fire under Simpson’s feet that it caused him to dance all up on Miles Miller’s drum platform. Speaking of the band, Kevin Black was a monster on the bass guitar, but he kept himself hidden in the shadows most of the night while Jefferson Crow and Gavin(?) held down duties on the piano and Hammond organ, respectively.
The performance lasted two hours. Almost every song from Metamodern Sounds was included in the set, along with a majority of High Top Mountain. “Sometimes Wine”, from Simpson’s previous band Sunday Valley, was an extremely welcome mid-show surprise, as was the previously mentioned cover of Willie Nelson’s “Sad Songs and Waltzes”. He proved once again that When in Rome’s “The Promise” now belongs to him, even though the song will always remind me of hanging out at the skating rink as a kid. There were no less than nine cover songs throughout the night, ranging from country to bluegrass to 80’s alternative to glam rock, but the Sturgill Simpson filter was applied to every one, making them all fit seamlessly into a stellar set of music. He thanked us again before steering into the last extended jam of the evening. “Thank you very much. We are here tomorrow night too. That’s what we call civilized touring.” He went on to question why he could buy marijuana anywhere in the state, but couldn’t smoke it anywhere in the state. It was the closest he came to exposing the person behind the music all night, but then he disappeared behind the old-timey sounds of The Osborne Brothers’ “Listening to the Rain”, which bled into the glammy jam of T. Rex’s “The Motivator”. When the song was over, the man who has been called the Savior of Country Music walked off the stage, followed by his excellent band. And then the lights came up. There would be no encore. He had said all there was to say.
On a personal note, I just want to reiterate what an incredible year it has been for country music. Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton are both getting the recognition they deserve. I just saw Jason Isbell perform three nights at the Ryman and every night was an amazing experience. I am seeing him again in Denver in December. I am also traveling to Chico to catch Stapleton next week. I cannot wait. I was lucky enough to witness the heartbreaking John Moreland perform multiple times this year (once with Nikki Lane, who I am seeing again soon). That circle of Country Music Saviors is getting larger and larger every day. There is a change in the air. The dark days of bro-country might be on the verge of becoming history. Maybe it’s just wishful thinking, but I think what happened at the CMAs this year was a cry for help from an industry that knows it’s rotting from the inside out. I read this the other day and thought it was perfect… “Stapleton’s just the latest champion, but what’s new is that last night the industry handed him the biggest, shiniest, loudest megaphone possible. SAVE US FROM OURSELVES, was the subtext.” I know a guy like Sturgill Simpson would refuse that megaphone; it’s just not in his DNA to be the mouthpiece for “real” country, but someone like Stapleton (who is already plugged into the Nashville elite) could really do something with it. Let’s hope he does.
Life of Sin
Sitting Here Without You
Water in a Well
Long White Line
Just Let Go
Poor Rambler / Sharecropper’s Son
I Never Go Around Mirrors
A Little Light
Living the Dream
Sad Songs and Waltzes
It Ain’t All Flowers
Railroad of Sin
You Don’t Miss Your Water
Turtles All the Way Down
You Can Have the Crown
I’d Have to Be Crazy
Listening to the Rain / The Motivator