Photo by Reto Sterchi
For the first hour of Sturgill Simpson's sold-out concert at Express Live on Wednesday, Sept. 14, it was as if the neo-country firebrand didn't have a new album that recently hit No. 1 on the country chart. Instead of starting with the new stuff, Simpson, backed by a virtuosic touring band and a standout, three-man horn section, played a mix of covers and songs from his first two albums.
Known for his reverence of outlaw country artists like Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard, Simpson approached his early material with a similar lawlessness, extending songs to let his musicians riff at will. "Long White Line," off Simpson's breakout sophomore record Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, even incorporated portions of Led Zeppelin's version of "When the Levee Breaks."
And yet, no matter what jaw-dropping licks the lead guitarist cooked up or what brassy, soulful digressions the red-faced horn section pursued, Simpson's slurry, Southern baritone was the highlight of each song, despite Simpson telling the audience he'd felt sick all day. (The overall volume of the show could have come up, though. The horns were plenty loud, but Simpson's acoustic guitar was fighting to be heard above the din of the dude-heavy crowd.)
Like his music and persona, Simpson's stage was devoid of frills. A black backdrop hanging behind the band depicted a white skeleton with a spear poised to attack a jawless, red skeleton holding a pitchfork. It was a simple, striking way to convey a duality Simpson often wrestles with in his music - especially on new album A Sailor's Guide to Earth, which he finally tapped into about halfway through the concert, starting with leadoff track "Welcome to Earth (Pollywog)."
"Hello, my son/ Welcome to earth," Simpson sang, setting the tone for what became a live rendition of the entire album, throughout which Simpson explored what it means to be a father and handed down bits of wisdom to his new son.
The fatherly guideposts expanded on some of the concepts found on Metamodern Sounds. While it's easy to get hung up on the druggy references and psychedelic imagery in a Metamodern song like "Turtles All the Way Down" (a favorite of this herb-scented crowd), a tune like "Life of Sin," which the band tackled early on with a fierce tautness instead of the extended-jam treatment that other songs received, did more than hint at the consequences of such a lifestyle. "Every morning when I rise I look in the mirror and despise the sight of everything and all that I've become," he sang.
Those early tunes foreshadowed a Sailor's Guide song like "Keep Between the Lines," in which Simpson advised his child to "stay in school, stay off the hard stuff and keep between the lines." While that rendition and others crackled with energy, the biggest crowd sing-along of the night was "In Bloom," in which Simpson remade the Nirvana tune into a gorgeous love song.
Simpson ended the evening with the album's closing track, "Call to Arms," a politically charged song that began as a critique of recent wars ("The bodies keep piling up every day") and morphed into a takedown of our reactions to them ("Nobody is lookin' up to care about a drone /All too busy lookin' down at our phone").
"Call to Arms" urged a different kind of fight. "Turn off the TV, turn off the news … the bullshit's got to go!" Simpson sang as his final words of the concert hung in the air. It's a message that's not so different from Timothy Leary's "Turn on, tune in, drop out" instructions from the '60s, except Simpson's medium is country music - a genre that has, with a few exceptions (Chris Stapleton, Miranda Lambert and Kacey Musgraves come to mind), moved in an increasingly apolitical direction, churning out radio-friendly, bro-country pablum.
Simpson said as much in a recent Facebook post reacting to the Academy of Country Music's announcement of a "Merle Haggard Spirit Award" last month. "If the ACM wants to actually celebrate the legacy and music of Merle Haggard," he wrote, "they should drop all the formulaic cannon fodder bullshit they've been pumping down rural America's throat for the last 30 years along with all the high school pageantry, meat parade award show bullshit and start dedicating their programs to more actual Country Music."
The post probably didn't win Simpson many friends on Nashville's Music Row, but it seems to be winning him fans. (This Columbus show was moved to Express Live from the Newport after ticket sales at the smaller venue maxed out.) When Simpson walked off stage, his denim shirt drenched in sweat, he didn't seem like country music's savior. There's not enough ego there for a messianic complex; he's as much a father as an outlaw. So call him what you want. Simpson is merely content to operate outside the lines.