Sturgill Simpson — vocally, musically, and (based on his demeanor onstage) personally — is a humble dude. So it will sound odd to kick off this review of his First Avenue show Sunday by comparing him to Kanye West. But there it is: Sturgill and Kanye are, within their own realms, more similar than different.
Sturgill’s 2014 breakout, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, was his The College Dropout — an ambitious album that managed to be both classicist and refreshingly genre averse. And Sturgill's latest album, April's A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, bears some resemblance to Late Registration, with its kamikaze leap into virtuosic production flourishes like strings and horns.
Also like Kanye, Sturgill’s revolution extends to his lyrics. Old Kanye was the first rapper with a Benz and a backpack. Let's call Sturgill the first country star with a schooner and an acid blotter-bookmarked copy of Moby-Dick. But the biggest similarity between Yeezy and Sturgeezy is artistic risk. A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, while brilliant, was an almost nonsensically risky move for Sturgill to make.
His previous album helped establish a niche, one he could have absolutely owned with a similarly minded follow-up. But that niche was a specific one: It’s easy to imagine Metamodern Sounds as the sole country album a big portion of its fans have listened to regularly. To stop making easily classifiable country music? Well, that would risk those fans moving on to somebody else for their country fix.
And that’s just what Sturgill did with Sailor’s Guide — he put out what might be the most genre-less album of the year. He arguably blew wide open the thematic vocabulary of modern country in a way even Kanye never did in rap. And it all seems to have worked, based on the rapturous audience response at Sunday's show.
Like Mr. West, Sturgill takes harebrained-on-paper aesthetic choices and executes them with such a self-assured touch, such authority, that his eccentricities become inviting rather than alienating. On record, it’s beautiful and deep and original and artful. Live, however, there’s no need to think about all those adjectives. It’s just a real, real good goddamn time.
Of course, the biggest “risk” is the omnipresence of the Dap-King horns across Sailor’s Guide’s runtime, and the funkward lean they lent to the album’s arrangements. To his credit, Sturgill is touring with a blazing three-piece horn section. And to his double credit, those horns are not only filling out the new cuts, but they're also fully integrated into older songs.
Sturgill saved the bulk of his new material for the last half of his set, opening the show with many of the fan favorites off Metamodern Sounds and his 2013 debut, High Top Mountain. Often the clearest lyric in a Simpson song is a declarative first line that rings out bell-clear before he goes into his passionately mush-mouthed delivery.
These moments came frequently during the Metamodern-heavy first half of the set, and the crowd tended to cheer at each one: “I’ve seen Jesus play with flames in a lake of fire,” from “Turtles All the Way Down”; “Lately things have been a little complicated,” from “Life of Sin”; and “Woke up today and decided to kill my ego,” from “Just Let Go.” Of course, they also cheered whenever Sturgill slipped fully into his outlaw belt, his accent thickening in tandem with his volume so that he seemed to bend each vowel like taffy.
Simpson’s music is rigorously unpretentious without being anti-intellectual, and that’s important. Even when he’s referencing Sin Eaters or Eastern philosophy, his voice, his phrasing, his enunciation, and his on- and off-record persona are all are unfailingly relatable. Sailor’s Guide is a disarmingly heartfelt album, especially coming from the guy who's the go-to country singer du jour for hipsters.
Part of what made Metamodern Sounds work was that, although the songs were funny and referential, Sturgill never seemed to sing a word he didn’t mean. Those songs were earnest, classicist country, taken from their writer’s life. They just happened to have been written by a dude who seemed to be scarfing hallucinogens.
Read the lyrics to Sturgill’s last two albums and you find a man who’s learned the hard way to ask questions about the world, and, on Sailor’s Guide, one who hopes to help his young son (to whom the whole album is addressed) learn that same lesson sooner and easier than he did. It’s that quality of honesty that had the crowd cheering through both their favorite lines and their favorite bellowed vocal tics.
Sturgill has assembled a live band that will pretty much eat your soul out of your chest for breakfast. The bass and drums were tight and sly and explosive when they needed to be. Estonian lead guitarist Laur Joamets plays a lot less steel guitar than you would expect from the sound on Sailor’s Guide, instead using a subtle slide guitar technique to imitate the instrument uncannily. With the horns in tow, the band delivered just about everything you could ever need, including a countrified cover of Led Zeppelin’s monolithic blues number “When the Levee Breaks."
They really started to flex during the second half, though, as they dove into the Sailor’s Guide cuts. The loud, full-band sections of “Welcome to Earth (Pollywog)” and the album’s dreamy rearrangement of Nirvana’s “In Bloom” were both strong. Sturgill abandoned his guitar during the former, opting to roam around the stage and conduct the horns with his hands.
Sturgill is an excellent guitarist himself, and he switched to electric for Sailor’s Guide standout “Keep It Between the Lines,” taking a frenzied, wah-pedal-filled solo. The set closed out with a long, swampy jam that felt like a train running through the Mainroom at top speed. Sturgill and Joamets strummed frantically, and the trumpet player went red in the face from pounding out high C’s. There was no encore, and that felt appropriate — it felt like there couldn’t have been one, like there was nothing left to say.
At one point, Sturgill said, “We’re gonna honor Prince." And for a pregnant second it seemed like they were going to cover the Purple One, as so many have done since it snowed on us all in April. Then he clarified: “We’re gonna honor Prince by not playing any Prince songs.” It was all right. Sturgill was being humble, and, in the process, he saluted the storied humility of a lost legend. It was all right.
At the same time, Laur really would have torn apart those solos on “Little Red Corvette." Or they could have taken on “It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night,” that would have been rad. But it was OK. He didn’t need to cover Prince ... I guess.
Critic’s bias: I haven’t listened to High Top Mountain.
Random notebook dump: I saw one cowboy hat in the audience, but it seems like if you were really looking for a clever look for a Sturgill show, you would want to go with a nautically themed ensemble in honor of A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. Maybe a pirate costume or a yachting cap.
The crowd: Skewed early thirties and above. Genders were fairly equally represented. A lot of people sang along to all the words of every song.
Overheard in the crowd: Some dude repeatedly (and weirdly aggressively) yelling “bravo” after a couple of songs, as though it were very important that he do so.