Sturgill Simpson Launches Spring Tour with Two Sold Out Shows in Austin
Sturgill Simpson has always come across as an artist who is more comfortable in the studio than onstage. But the reality of the music business now – even when your new album is at the top of the charts – means touring is a necessity. Simpson’s stage presence has always been quiet and down to earth, not so much uncomfortable but definitely a little shy. So once again the humble country singer from Kentucky finds himself kicking off another massive tour, this time in support of his third studio LP and major label debut A Sailor’s Guide To Earth. Simpson and his band decided to launch that tour with a two-night stand at Austin’s ACL Moody Theater on Thursday and Friday.
Even since his 2014 critically lauded album Metamodern Sounds In Country Music, Simpson’s popularity has skyrocketed, bringing him a wave of fans who are either jumping on the bandwagon or are just sick and tired of that Luke Bryan pop country garbage. It was no surprise that both Thursday and Friday’s shows sold out almost instantly, and on Friday night it was easy to see Simpson taking in the pressure that comes with being a marquee headliner at a large venue and navigating his way through delivering a longer, more dynamic performance than he has in the past. The most noticeable part of this – besides a band that now includes a terrific trio of horn players – was his choice to ditch his guitar for roughly half the songs in the two-hour set. New songs like “Welcome To Earth (Pollywog)” and “Breakers Roar” found the humble troubadour replaced by a country crooner, more George Jones than Waylon Jennings. Simpson joked awkwardly that he didn’t know what to do with his hands, suggesting the solution would be somebody handing him a joint.
On Friday, it was the moments when Simpson grabbed his guitar and joined in for boisterous country-fied soul tunes like “Keep It Between The Lines”, which, with the band firing on all cylinders brought to mind Otis Redding’s “Hard To Handle”. He ditched the guitar again for his touching take on “In Bloom”, rousing all the country boys in the audience into a Nirvana sing-a-long. The first portion of the show was basically a track-by-track performance of A Sailor’s Guide To Earth, and this gave the audience a look at the soulful, funkier direction Simpson is sailing in. In the live setting it was clear that much of this material – give or take a bit of twang here and there – is almost not country music at all. By the end of these songs the crowd’s attention was wavering, but soon Simpson had them right back in the palm of his hand with older songs like “It Ain’t All Flowers” and his slow burning take on When In Rome’s “The Promise”. Songs off Metamodern Sounds of Country Music found the band stretching out and having some fun, especially the horn players, who added a brassy New Orleans touch to many tunes.
Within the realm of respectable country music and Americana right now, Sturgill Simpson has risen to a new level of fame second only to peers like Chris Stapleton and Jason Isbell. His authentic embrace of the outlaw sound and now his funky tonk sound on the new album make him worthy of this throne as he is clearly growing as an artist. Friday’s show delivered that sentiment and also exposed the fact that if Sturgill wants to stay at the top it may be time to grow as a performer.
Photos by Maggie Boyd.