Along with his fellow Kentucky native Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson has been cast as mainstream country’s credibility savior. It’s easy enough to see why.
Simpson has an old man’s voice in a (relatively) young man’s body, singing in a manly bellow that recalls the late Texas outlaw-country icon Waylon Jennings. Simpson also presents himself in song as a guy who would be happy to stay out of trouble, if only trouble didn’t come looking for him. That was enough to earn him this year’s best-country-album Grammy Award, for 2016’s “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth.”
All that aside, however, Simpson just really isn’t all that country. He’s a rocker at heart, which he admitted about halfway through his Saturday-night set at a sold-out-to-the-gills Booth Amphitheater.
“Whatever a ‘Nashville country star’ is, I don’t know,” he said. “We’ve always been a rock and roll band. Anyway, here’s a William Bell song.”
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That served as introduction to a cover of Memphis soul man Bell’s “You Don’t Miss Your Water.” Also worth mentioning is the fact that the song before that had been another cover, of pop star Rihanna’s “Desperado,” which Simpson rendered as roadhouse blues. For good measure, he also covered former Texas poet laureate Steven Fromholz, bluesman Freddie King and even the 1980s-vintage British new-wave group When in Rome (a scintillating version of “The Promise”). Truly, Simpson has a flair for reinventing well-chosen songs rivaling that of the late great Joe Cocker.
Saturday’s show did have a few hiccups, mostly due to the weather. The skies grew ominously dark right when the gates were opening, with a chance of storms in the forecast and lightning visible in the distance. Booth management opted to delay the start time by an hour, which scratched scheduled opening act Victoria Adia. But the rain never got all that heavy, the lightning moved elsewhere and the show went off with no problems once Simpson started around 9 p.m.
Simpson appeared onstage in dressed-down mode, just jeans and a T-shirt, fronting a stripped-down quartet in which he was the sole guitarist. And while the guy’s no Stevie Ray Vaughan, Simpson proved himself a very fine and versatile guitar player along the lines of Joe Walsh. He carried the instrumental load with style, whether pounding, gliding, flowing like water, working the chucka-chucka bar-band beat or even stretching out to funk.
You’ll notice the word “twang” is not in that last paragraph, because there was pretty much none of it in this show. Whatever country content there was took the form of lyrical never-do-well characters as tough as any conjured up by George Jones or Drive-By Truckers - and the fact that it was a show that felt like it should have been happening in a dive bar somewhere, not outside.
“Drink up,” Simpson said early on, “we sound better that way!” Alas, plenty of people in the audience took his advice, which made for a crowd that was often difficult to navigate.
Back onstage, highlights included “Sea Stories,” a song Simpson said was so intensely personal that he only put the chorus in once so that his record company wouldn’t chose it as a single; “Call to Arms,” a song he played in a breakthrough “Saturday Night Live” performance back in January; and “Railroad of Sin,” at an overdrive pace as fast as the average Old 97s song.
At the end, Simpson explained that he doesn’t do encores because they’re a silly ritual and a pointless waste of time. Instead, he said he’d just stay onstage and rock out - “But I’m gonna do it in tune.”
All that, plus attention to detail.