Sturgill Simpson is a searcher; not the kind who finds idols to worship, as so many see him to be on the mantel of modern country music, a pillar of purity standing tall against the temptation of pop appeal.
While the Kentucky native is still searching for the country credo of “three chords and the truth,” he’s digging deeper than most to do so as he brilliantly displayed in a bristling near-two-hour set before a crowded Town Ballroom on Sunday night.
From the first notes of the show – a theremin solo by keyboardist Jeff Crow – the tone was set that this ain’t your daddy’s traditional country. An extended cosmic jam by Simpson and his stellar five-piece backing band, including a new second organist, led to Simpson singing in his no-nonsense conversational twang, “I’m getting pretty tired of the state things are in,” to open “Some Days,” an existential battle with expectations which segued seamlessly into “Life of Sin.”
Dressed with no care to impress in a T-shirt, jeans and running shoes – perhaps he asked, “What would Willie do?” – Simpson let the band shine even though he can clearly play lead, picking more than strumming with frequent flashes of his bluegrass roots. The guitar star is clearly Estonia native Laur Joamets, a Telecaster master who could go toe-to-toe with anyone, applying his blues-rock chops with great discipline to stay within the relative limits of Simpson’s sound. They both burned through the bluegrass-meets-Bakersfield of “Sitting Here Without You,” pulled back in the tear-in-beer ballad of “Water in a Well,” then flashed a funky flair in Buford Abner’s timeless honky-tonk of “Long White Line.”
Simpson wasted little time between some two dozen songs drawing mostly from his two albums. He sang of “cleaning out the darkest corners of my mind” in “It Ain’t All Flowers,” declaring “sometimes you gotta feel the thorns” before steering a spacey jam that stayed intact as it reached warp speed, stopping on a dime to spin the 1980’s hit by When in Rome “The Promise” into a classic countrypolitan ballad, his frequent mumble and occasional growl giving way to a soul-bearing howl.
The brooding “Old King Coal” gave the kind of Kentucky native philosophy true to this forward-thinking son of a coal miner’s daughter – “what are we gonna do/when the mountains are gone and so are you?” – before Simpson flipped the switch to Memphis soul with a Stax-tastic take on “You Don’t Miss Your Water (Til Your Well Runs Dry).”
In summoning the sounds and spirits of the land from which he came while searching for answers to life’s unsolved mysteries, Sturgill Simpson appears to be a soothsayer, carrying modern country music in new directions while keeping it real and rooted in its traditions. While he discounts his hero status to the old school as not his cross to bear, such resistance combined with his exploratory spirit make Simpson one of the most intriguing artists of the moment, and likely to stay on that mantel for the long haul.