Sturgill Simpson’s Last Small Stage
While such proclamations can ring hyperbolic at times, it’s no stretch to say Sturgill Simpson’s hourlong set before a couple of hundred spectators in a public park a few miles east of Mount Rainier will be the last time he plays a venue that cozy or out of the way. Simpson’s been on the road with Zac Brown, the sort of exposure that portends at least a few years of playing dates far glitzier than Chinook Fest, a charming three-day festival in the middle of nowhere that featured mainly local bands, among them Seattle’s Hobosexual, a raucous two-piece whose uncut rock and witty lyrics bridge the gap between Zeppelin and Zappa.
Before urging Simpson to come back onstage for a two-song encore, a local disc jockey remarked that the Kentucky-bred neo-traditionalist had given him “a music boner.” It was a crass analogy, but an accurate one. Chinook Fest’s mellow, beer-swilling vibe had been jarred wholesale by a force of musical nature. Dressed in a flannel shirt and largely eschewing onstage chit-chat, Simpson’s picking was adroit, his voice deep and nimble. His heart-wrenching version of When in Rome’s “The Promise” is one of the more imaginative covers in recent memory, and he’s shrewd enough to warm up many of his compositions with a dollop of AM gold that’s reminiscent of Gordon Lightfoot.
Simpson’s sensational Estonian guitarist, Laur Joamets, makes a standard guitar sound like lap steel; the speed of his chord changes is awe-inspiring. Looking on a few rows back from the stage was Alejandro Garcia, himself no slouch on guitar with the Seattle band NoRey. Legitimately dazzled, Garcia observed that he couldn’t move his fingers that fast in general, much less in the service of a stringed instrument.
At one point during his set, Simpson paid a compliment to Chinook Fest’s organizers and attendees, saying it was “a beautiful little thing you’ve got going here.” He seemed genuinely happy to be playing Saturday, but also aware that the next time he looks out into a sea of faces on such a summer day, he’ll be doing so at Red Rocks or the Gorge.