Sturgill Simpson Stood On My Toe …
… Well, if the truth be told it was the man in front of me who stood on my toe (for which he apologised). But, it could have been Sturgill. The Real Music Club had brought him to the Limelight 2, which has no backstage, so performers need to walk through the crowd to reach their spot. There would have been 250 max there. We were all aware that he is playing to bigger and better audiences elsewhere. In humble Belfast though we had him all to ourselves again. Sweet.
The night was to be a mix of his tunes and other people’s tunes, he told us. Then he launched into his own special rendition of old Stanley Brothers classic “Could You Love Me One More Time”. With eyes closed and the Sturgill warble kicking in at appropriate intervals, the song became nice and loud and bounced way over to the back of the long room. “Water In The Well” was one of his. It’s not too often that you find a standing audience listening in silence; that is usually the reserve of people in seats. This room however was noiseless, with some folks quietly mouthing the words. Then he stopped, suddenly, the song was complete. He squinted out at us with an open grin; he knew he’d caught us on the hop.
“Sound good?” he asked. Well yes he did, of course he did. He was on his own tonight, just him, his guitar, and his scarf. “You could’ve hung meat up here during sound check” he told us. That was no surprise to us, as they still hadn’t turned the heat on. Needless to say though, it all warmed up as the night progressed. Songs like “Railroad Of Sin” helped with that. It blew the lid off the house. His guitar was ratcheting like a train fast moving through this highball, low down, hoedown of a song. And it was effortless. One of the biggest responses of the night kicked in when he finished.
The words weren’t always being mouthed quietly though. On one or two songs he stopped because he forgot the lyrics. “What’s the next line?” That couple who seemingly knew every song he’d ever sung were able to tell him. He just seemed to be happy to be here. This was the most relaxed I’d ever seen him. He was chatty, and funny and telling stories about working in the grocery store and promising to come back in the summer with a band.
“Are you guys always this quiet?” he asked. The honest answer to that is no, we’re not. We are as capable of having talkers and phone-holder-uppers and pusher-in-fronters as anywhere else. This night however it seems we were all on the same wavelength. This night we just all wanted to hear the man sing, and do his thing. “This never happens in the States,” he laughed. “Guys pay $100 and then talk right through the show”.
I’ve been reading about that; about the friction at his gigs. About the fights. I’ve seen a video of him having to call out a fight that had kicked in while he was singing Roy Orbison’s “Crying”. He sang “Crying” for us in Belfast this night. He introduced it as “This was written by a genius”. It was being sung by someone who is pretty good too though. His eyes were closed and it was all nasally drawl, that somehow managed to leave the words distinct. (How does that work?)
Later on a big tall bloke returned from the bar with a couple of pints, walked in front of me, and handed one to his mate. I thought bummer, there goes my view and started to scope out somewhere else to perch. However the bloke turned round, apologised and moved parallel to me so he wasn’t blocking my view. That’s more in keeping with the Sturgill Simpson interpretation of how to listen to Roy Orbison surely?
He said “Let’s get weird. Here’s a country song about Buddhism” and gave us “Just Let Go” from Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. Last year I went on a Goggleathon to try and work out what the hell he was talking about in this song. I decided that when he talked about blasting “off to the Bardo”, he meant that he was reaching an in-between transitional state, and he did not mean he was reaching the 1980s UK entrants of the Eurovision Song Contest of the same name. However – who knows? Either way, he pulled it off, up there on his own with his transcendental scarf on. The guitar sounded sitar, his voice was melodic and warm. And to be honest, his scarf was just tartan, it wasn’t transcendental at all.
As he introduced “Turtles All The Way Down” he told us about the press taking a few words and twisting them into a headline (At least, I hope that’s what he said). He said he got so fed up explaining the song that he told the press it was about drugs. And it’s not, it’s about metaphors. Or metamorphosis. I can’t make out my own handwriting. It was dark, and I was embarrassed taking notes after what he said about his words being twisted. Don’t get judgemental, not after we just discussed a song about Buddhism. Or is it really about Buddhism? Oh bloody hell. Anyway he told us “I do this for you, not to sell magazines”, so he feels pretty strongly about it. Bottom line though, is he gave us the purest of a one-man-and-his-guitar country iced beauty, laced it with psilocybin, and DMT, and carried it on the back of a turtle. All the way down.
At the end of the night he stayed at the side of the stage and talked to people for ages. I was going to go over to see if I could get speaking with him, but I met a friend I hadn’t seen for a long time and decided to go and get chips with her instead. I looked over as we were leaving; he was still there, chatting. Just adding that final magic touch to people’s night. Those touches are pretty hard to beat.
A version of this interview first appeared on CultureHub