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Sturgill Simpson Is a Master of Country Music Performance

"Too kind, too kind."

"Too kind, too kind."

Sturgill Simpson
Fine Line Music Cafe, Minneapolis
Thursday, December 4, 2014


Nashville-based singer-songwriter Sturgill Simpson's sophomore album, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, cites next-level critical theory in its title, begins with a song about psilocybin and turtles, and ends with a chopped-up backward guitar solo. On paper he's the least "country" country singer out there who isn't Taylor Swift -- but his performance last night at the Fine Line proves that paper is an increasingly worthless medium.

Despite his psyched-out philosophy, Simpson put on a sold-out show that reveled in exhaustion and sorrow without sacrificing positivity and showmanship -- basically hitting every checkpoint of a successful country music concert.
[jump] Simpson has a reputation for aloof intellectualism, but it's surprising how relatable he comes across on stage. His promotional material would make him out to be a spaced-out backwoods stoner, more Devendra Banhart than Waylon Jennings. On record you hear a lyric like "Reptiles made of light cut you open and pull out all your pain," and it's easy to think, "Who the hell is this dude?" Live, you see him with his wrinkled cowboy shirt and his scraggly Charlie Chaplin mustache and it makes sense: "Oh, it's this guy."

This guy, in real life, seems tired and a little bit sad -- world-weary and well-adjusted to being hung over. More than anything, Simpson seems perpetually exhausted. The last thing he seems to be interested in doing is putting on a good show -- good showmanship is just a result of his commitment to his resignation.

The point that epitomized this most last night was his version of the Stanley Brothers' bluegrass standard "Medicine Springs." The song, the type of unrelatable country ballad that focuses on love, incarceration, and the death of one's "darlin'" climaxes with the lyric, "She's a waitin' in heaven for me." Simpson treated it like the real thing. He sang the song as if his darling is real and heaven is real and afterlife reunions aren't just a possibility but the most likely outcome. He made it feel like it's no different than the exhausting existence of everyday modern life.

That attitude persisted throughout Simpson's performance. Fan favorites "Long White Line" and "Life of Sin" turned into sing-alongs despite their bleak content. Down-tempo cuts "The Promise" and "Turtles All the Way Down" played like ballads despite their bizarre non-romanticism. The entire show should have been incredibly bleak, but Simpson is so attuned his bleakness that it resulted in contagious positivity.  

Still, Simpson is at his best when he's rattled. There was a point last night, at the climax of mid-set banger "Living the Dream," when he jerked his guitar up, Johnny Cash-style, just as the lights went to bright white. When Johnny Cash did that, it was a tick of rock-star antagonism -- a middle finger to his fans more than anything else. Simpson did it like he was tossing his coat on the coach after a long day at work. Johnny Cash sang about murder -- Simpson sang, "I don't have to do a goddamn thing except sit around and wait to die."
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The biggest surprise of the night for those who only knew Simpson through his recordings was his guitar playing. He repeatedly proved his ability to bring about the Kentucky version of face-melting. The interplay between his acoustic picking and the electric slide of guitarist Laur "Lil Joe" Joamets was consistently astounding, especially on the late-set "Railroad of Sin" and closer "Listening to the Rain." Joamets himself lived up to his ever-swelling reputation with an extended solo over the Sunday Drivers' "Sometimes Wine" that inspired Simpson to point and grin in awe. Joamet, unmoved, just shrugged.

Even if the night got a tad long, the crowd stayed focused and enthusiastic throughout the 90-minute set. Simpson took it all in stride, remaining start-to-finish somewhere between bored, exhausted, and humble. "Too kind, too kind," was a common mid-song refrain. He never seemed quite pleased to be there. But he didn't once seem like he'd rather be anywhere else.

The spirit of Sturgill Simpson is tired and resigned, but completely at peace with all of it. He cracked very few smiles last night, but you could hardly say he looked unhappy. He just seemed content. Things aren't great, but they are how they are, and you might as well make a good show of it.  

Setlist

1. Sitting Here Without You
2. Water in a Well
3. Long White Line
4. Voices
5. Poor Rambler
6. Time After All
7. Medicine Springs (Stanley Brothers cover)
8. A Little Light Within
9. Living the Dream
10. Life of Sin
11. Sad Songs and Waltzes (Willie Nelson cover)
12. Sometimes Wine (Sunday Drivers cover)
13. I Never Go Around Mirrors (Keith Whitley cover)
14. Some Days
15. It Ain't All Flowers
16. The Promise
17. Railroad of Sin
18. You Can Have the Crown
19. Turtles All the Way Down

Encore

20. I'd Have to Be Crazy
21. Listening to the Rain (Osbourne Brothers cover)

The Opener: Alberta native Lucette makes pretty folk music that's best when it's dark (relative stomper "Black Is the Color" was a highlight) and still very pretty when it's not. She summed herself up best, "I don't mean to put you guys to sleep -- it's kinda like Paul Simon opening for Led Zeppelin... I'm sorry guys, I'm doing my best."  "You Rock!" someone yelled back.  She did. Her cover of Tom Waits's "Pictures in a Frame" was gorgeous.

Personal Bias: I'm psyched about metamodernism -- the school of critical theory that Simpson name-drops on his album -- and over-analyze everything he does in light of that that. I'm probably more excited about my philosophical assumptions in regard to his music than I am about the music itself. But he's still really good.

The Crowd: Lots of adults who were pretty bad at navigating concert floors. I experienced consistent light shoving throughout the night -- in the end it was oddly comforting.  Everyone was apologetic and very enthusiastic about the music.

Overheard: Re: holograms, "They did Tupac -- let's do some real greats!  Let's get Elvis!  Let's get Johnny!"

Random Notebook Dump: From Sturgill, "Thanks for coming out in the cold -- this is crazy."


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