|See that $12.50 price? Unless Sturgill Simspon is the second coming of Fugazi, that price is going up next time.|
Last time Sturgill Simpson played Turner Hall Ballroom maybe 100 people showed up. This time – through word of mouth, a handful of national television appearances, and (according to a Facebook post) even a busload of people that came down from Appleton – the place was pretty much sold out. Last time the boys in the band had to sell merch out of a cardboard box after the show. This time a table was set up before the show started. And last time, Sturgill Simpson had just released the fantastic Metamodern Sounds in Country Music to some minor critical hype and nothing else. This time, he was just nominated for a Grammy.
One might think something would change with all that extra fame, but one would be wrong in thinking that.
“I don't even know what Americana is,” Sturgill said between songs, acknowledging his Grammy nomination, “but I'll take that over country any fuckin' day!” The crowd roared and hooted and hollered in approval. It is hard to pinpoint Sturgill's sound – and neither Americana nor Country do it proper justice – but 70s Outlaw Country is a good place to start. Taking their cues from Waylon, Willie, and the boys, Sturgill Simpson and his awesome backing band delivered a scorching 95-minute set that had everything from straight-up country (“Long White Line”), to blistering honky-tonk (“Railroad of Sin”) to spirituals (“A Little Light”).
If that wasn't enough, the band veered dangerously close to Southern Rock in general and Allman Brothers Band in particular on a couple of numbers wherein the boys just jammed out. (This lends credence to calling Simpson's music progressive country, but I digress.) This was highlighted by lead guitarist Laur Joamets, who, for lack of better words, can just flat out fucking play. He had no use for rock-star theatrics, though I don't think anyone would've minded a few windmills or epic guitar faces. Instead, we were treated to intricate picking that he made look effortless. It was a joy to watch.
If you wanted to dance, you could – the rhythm section was locked in all night. If you wanted to lose yourself in Simpson's deep, metaphorically complex, and oftentimes dark lyrics (pretty much the entirety of “Living the Dream”) you could do that too. I think this is part of what brought in such a diverse crowd. It was the sort of show where Chuck Taylors mingled with cowboy boots, and there was plaid and flannel as far as the eye could see. And sure, some of those Johnny-and-Jill-come-latelies talked over the slow songs, like the gorgeous sounding, would-be modern country radio hit “The Promise.” But that can be overlooked. The music managed to cut through all of that and hit you right in the heart and brain, all full of good time vibes and stoned thoughts.
Sturgill Simpson and his band (they need a name, I think) left it all on the stage on Friday night. Next time they come to town it'll be a bigger stage, and I have no doubts that they'll have no trouble with that one, either.