Sturgill (the ‘g’ is soft, like ‘j’) Simpson is rapidly outgrowing the need for an introduction. Thanks to two superlative albums in less than 18 months (the debut High Top Mountain and earlier this year, Metamodern Sounds In Country Music) and equally strong support from his label Loose Music, this Kentucky native is staking a claim, perhaps unwittingly, to be the saviour of Country music.
Whether you feel it needs saving or not is a moot point. There are plenty of other artists out there plying their trade in the traditional styles more aligned with Cash, Haggard and Nelson than the brand of new-Nashville wannabe’s. What might be of more interest to readers of Folk Radio UK is why a man who bleeds Bakersfield is a candidate for a live review on these exalted pages. Two reasons; our esteemed editor was suitably impressed by Simpson’s cover of When In Rome’s 1988 song The Promise on his latest album, and because if this guy isn’t ‘roots’ music from the sole of his shoes to his top E string, we may as well pack up, go home and start a keyboard duo.
Before he graces the stage, Daniel Meade and Lloyd Reid warm an already quietly steaming crowd up. Meade offered great support to Vikesh Kapoor at Servant Jazz Quarters in May, but tonight’s set up is custom made for his Glaswegian take on the Nashville sound and he really kills it. Offering up songs from his 2013 album As Good As Bad Can Be as well as new tracks from a Nashville session with, amongst others, Old Crow Medicine Show, they blitz through numbers like Long Gone Wrong, If It’s Not Your Fault (I Guess It’s Mine) and a wonderful cover of Hank William’s Cold Cold Heart. Meade is more assured tonight and Reid’s guitar allows him to focus on his vocal duties, which are also stronger. What You Waiting For, As Good As Bad Can Be and Lay It Down are energetic and confident. He rightly gets a great reception from what could understandably be considered a partisan crowd. Nice hat, too.
The weight of expectation is an unnecessarily cruel addition to the plethora of issues emerging talent has to deal with. To date, Simpson has taken it all in his stride, confounding critics with the very quick follow up to his debut, surprising them with its breadth and off-kilter observations on life and the big questions, and generally coming across live and in interviews as if he’s just stepped out onto the porch for a chat. Surely, there must be a dark side? I can reveal that there is; following the great support slot from Daniel Meade, Simpson arrives on stage ten minutes late. Late! It’s not Guns n‘ Roses but honestly…
Well, I didn’t say it was worth a place at Leavenworth, did I? By the point at which he welcomes everyone, Bush Hall, replete with flowing crimson curtains and ornate Georgian chandeliers, is a hive of activity. A cross-section of musical society has rendered the already struggling air conditioning obsolete. The bar is running out of free water and cold lager is the new black. And we’re off to the races.
Meade and his Glaswegian mate provide backing via keys and Reid’s beautiful electric guitar. Without a full band – Simpson’s on his way back to the UK in the Autumn to debut that beast – the rockier side of his material is more subdued but Meade and Reid (ouch) more than capably hold the train to the tracks. The first few songs pass almost too quickly to assess but each one is greeted by large roars and the occasional yee-haw (which, when it’s uttered by an investment banker from Surrey is about as welcome as ‘get in the hole!’ at the Masters) from the crowd. A particular highlight is You Can Have The Crown from High Top Mountain, a fast-paced romp through the twisted side of landing on the bottom of the heap; ‘Well I’ve been spending all my money on weed and pills / Trying to write a song that’ll pay the bills / But it ain’t came yet, so I guess I’ll have to rob a bank..’ The lyrics are funny and bleak at the same time and if it wasn’t for the Rococo plasterwork on the walls, we could be in a Texas motel bar in ’62.
It’s indicative of Simpson’s work that you can’t see the joins between his influences and his own material. Nicely chosen covers from Lefty Frizzell and Roy Orbison, a stunning take on Crying, sit alongside potential classics in Railroad of Sin and Time After All, a great minor key song about watching time and tide pass you by – ‘I’m tired of the smoke, they all blow in my eyes’. Despite only being able to rehearse for a day prior to the gig, the three musicians gel well. Meade shows a nice ability to splash Jerry Lee Lewis piano runs and trills across the melodies and special mention must go to Reid, who plays the fretboard off his electric, switching from Sun-styled rockabilly to Cash chick-a-boom rhythms, seemingly in the space of a chord change. Simpson’s control of his acoustic is assured as so few are these days – though I’m sure it’s not, it appears very much a natural extension of his arms and fingers. When In Rome’s The Promise is a clever choice that Simpson jokes he was sure would get a good response from the Brits until he realised no-one knew it. His version has been moulded into new almost waltz-style shapes that take the ballad into ever more heart-rending soundscapes. When he goes up an octave towards the end you know he’s hit the bulls-eye. The ability to hear the song within the song is another indication of Simpson’s art – it’s a gem, and he knows it.
One of the biggest cheers of the night is for the first track from Metamodern Sounds.., Turtles All The Way Down. Supposedly inspired by reading a book on metaphysics, Simpson raps on its tendency to force journalists to search for the meaning behind the words when, as he tells us, you could do worse than a little narcotic experimentation when you want to write a song. For the sake of clarity, he’s good enough to suggest he’s not condoning such actions, but that just makes the crowd laugh harder. You can take the boy out of Kentucky…
The man who says there’s a lot of room for progression in country music and who Rolling Stone calls the ‘..new country badass’ is worth every plaudit right now. Dingwalls in September may need to reinforce the walls. By the time of the ubiquitous last encore, a raucous rendering of A Little Light – ‘Gotta walk that road, all the way to heaven..’, there’s enough steam in the air for a sauna. The night is an unqualified success and without either Simpson or Loose Music being arrogant, it seems nothing more than expected. He’s just that good, and a worthy addition to Folk Radio’s canon.
Review by: Paul Woodgate
Turtles All The Way Down
Simpson nailing it on David Letterman with ‘Life of Sin’
UK TOUR OCTOBER 2014 (FULL BAND)
29 Sep – LONDON, Dingwalls,
30 Sep – NOTTINGHAM, The Maze
01 Oct – BRISTOL, St. Bonaventure’s
02 Oct – LIVERPOOL, Leaf
03 Oct – CORK, Triskel Arts Centre
04 Oct – DUBLIN, Whelan’s
05 Oct – GLASGOW, Oran Mor