The rise and rise of Sturgill Simpson has been of little surprise to anyone who’s bothered to really listen to his albums; debut High Top Mountain and Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. Beneath the welter of ‘Country music is saved’ and ‘Sturgill likes turtles’ articles, the songs on both evidence a refreshingly ‘care less’ attitude to the hipsters, playing a straight bat that’s perfect for the press despite his penchant for playing it fast and loose with the conventions of the very style he’s supposedly here to save. Oh, and the songs? They’re very, very good; how’s that for novelty value?
Last year, Sturgill’s acoustic set a Bush Hall and full band blow-out at Dingwalls were all but sold out, Loose were all over the media like a rash and his profile rose like dirty stocks on an inside trade. This year, he’s signed to Atlantic in the US, sold out 3 nights at the Ryman and returns to London a bona fide star. The last eighteen months have been meteoric by anyone’s standards, so can the rebel without pause still cut it?
Support for Sturgill arrives first in the form of Joe Pug, who battles manfully with the high-level of white noise in the room, his articulate and often humorous conversation doubtless winning new fans. With his penultimate number None The Wiser, he shows considerable progress from his excellent Windfall album, a record that deserves to be heard in full band setting. Regardless, it was job done for Joe tonight.
Simpson and the band wander nonchalantly onto the stage and crank into the set – the sound is good and the crowd are ready to be transported to the States for 90 minutes. Water In A Well and Long White Line allow Laur Joamets to shine on guitar, something he’ll do throughout the set, the latter being sung by the crowd immediately and featuring the first of several extended instrumental codas, each one more frenetic and looser than the last. Voices is greeted with equal recognition, Sturgill’s characteristic head movement pulling his vocal from the mic and blurring the occasional phrase.
There’s little between-song conversation through the first half-hour, which finishes with the hybrid Country/Bluegrass of Poor Rambler, a raucous work out that triggers a step up in tempo. The controlled bluster of Living The Dream and Life Of Sin from Metamodern rush by, Simpson eschewing the space behind the mic for the first time in the evening and sauntering around the semi-circle created by the band – he’ll do so again later as the temperature on stage reaches fever territory. No sooner have the gears been greased than the pseudo-psych Country of Turtles All The Way Down slows the pace a little, his signature song somewhat muted and dispensed with quickly, as is the cover of When In Rome’s The Promise – fixtures of the set but neither holding a candle to the controlled fury created on stage for follow-up Railroad Of Sin.
The Lefty Frizzell ballad I Never Go Around Mirrors is brief respite. Sturgill throws a vocal bouquet to record label Loose and the Assembly Hall, ‘..prettiest room around’, acknowledging that only a year ago he was playing to much smaller British crowds, not sold out houses in grand high-ceilinged spaces and to people who know the words to his songs. It’s an audience that’s learnt when to holler and whoop in all the right places and gets really fired up when Sturgill dials up the tempo, the band opening up the evening into jam sessions underpinned by Kevin Black’s unassuming bass and Miles Miller’s ability to flit between rhythm styles at the drop of a hi-hat.
This sprinkling of gold dust adds a rich patina to proceedings and despite the odd slower moment, it’s heads down, see you at the end until the inevitable encore, a meaty cover of The Osborne Brothers Listening To The Rain, complete with Marc Bolan interlude. Simpson and his crack band are in the zone right now, riding a critically positive wave and tighter than a rusty spur. It’s a joy to behold, like standing on the edges of a huge storm and feeling it rush past.
Review by: Paul Woodgate