by Julian Spivey
The beautiful Orpheum Theatre in Memphis, Tenn. might need to look into repairs today because Sturgill Simpson absolutely blew the roof off of the joint on Saturday night (Sept. 10).
Simpson has been touted as one of the best Americana artists in the country since releasing his debut album High Top Mountain in 2013, as well as one of the artists tasked with “saving country music,” despite the fact that he honestly doesn’t seem to give a shit and just wants to play music how he wants to play it.
Simpson’s passion and energy for music has led to him developing a cult following of loyal and exuberant fans who shout his lyrics along with him and shake and dance with great fervor in the aisles and at their seats, while on their feet throughout the entirety of his almost two-and-a-half-hour show. The only crowd experience I can compare attending a Sturgill Simpson theatre venue performance too intensity wise is to seeing Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band in a packed arena. If you’re not completely into it or a part of the “moment” you’re going to feel completely left out and foreign.
Simpson opened his show with a cover of Willie Nelson’s “I’d Have to Be Crazy,” which appeared on his debut album. The performance perfectly showed off his one-of-a-kind and fantastic vocals, even though he’d say after the opener that he’d been suffering from a cold lately and apologized to the audience. His voice didn’t sound far off from his recordings, so if that’s what he sounds like when he’s a bit under the weather than good luck to everyone else.
My favorite Simpson song is “Living the Dream,” off of his Grammy-nominated 2014 album Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, which he performed second in his set and totally rocked. It appeared to be one of the favorites among many in the sold out audience.
Simpson is truly unique in that he can sound traditionally country with performances like “Water in a Well,” “Long White Line” and the Lefty Frizzell cover “I Never Go Around Mirrors” that remind fans of throwbacks like Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard while also bringing new and innovative sounds and lyrics to country music like the horn section he added for his latest album, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, released in April and having songs like “Turtles All The Way Down,” from Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, with liner notes paying thanks to people like Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking.
The great thing about Simpson’s tour this year behind his most recent album is that he’s been playing A Sailor’s Guide to Earth complete from start to finish. This essentially gives his fans two complete sets, one where he performs favorites from his first two albums and then a second where he performs the new album in succession.
Some of the finest performances from what was essentially his first set included rip-roarers like “Life of Sin” and “Railroad of Sin,” played back-to-back (of course), “Some Days,” “It Ain’t All Flowers” and his terrific cover of When in Rome’s 1988 hit “The Promise.”
The performance of A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, one of the best albums released this year in any genre, was truly epic with Simpson extending many of the album’s tracks into long jam sessions. Many, even among his fans, criticized Simpson when they heard the album would heavily feature a horn section before even hearing the album, but this decision was not only brilliant in the way the record sounds, but shows that country music can evolve and still remain true to itself. A saxophone can sound good played alongside a steel guitar.
A Sailor’s Guide to Earth played in succession is perfect because of the cohesiveness of the album, which was largely written for Simpson’s newborn son as sort of a “how to” album, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t favorite performances from this portion of the set. I really enjoy “Keep It Between the Lines,” which is definitely a “dos and don’ts” list for Simpson’s son. It’s one of the grooviest tracks on the album and it’s even better live with Simpson’s elongated jam at the end.
You could tell, despite some of the reservations before even hearing the album, that Simpson’s fans really dig it based on their reactions, especially to performances like “Sea Stories” and Simpson’s fantastic Nirvana cover “In Bloom.”
The most raucous performance on the album is the song that finishes it off “Call to Arms,” which was also the final performance in Simpson’s set. The hard-charging song is essentially about all of life’s bullshit, whether it’s wars begun for oil, political-leaning cable television networks or music that’s forgone creativity and truth for money. The fact that so many in his audience loved this song actually gives me a little bit of hope for the future of this country, but unfortunately it’s a small demographic.
People often say about Bruce Springsteen that if you don’t really appreciate him on the radio or on records that you should see him perform live and he’ll win you over. I feel this could work for people who claim not to like country music simply by going to a Sturgill Simpson concert. His energy is off the walls and his songs are lyrically and sonically brilliant.