Sturgill Simpson – Rough Trade NYC – April 19, 2016
Give it up for a little truth in advertising. The show was billed as “Sturgill Simpson: A Special Performance of A Sailor’s Guide to Earth” at Rough Trade NYC in Brooklyn at 8:30 p.m., and that’s exactly what it was. Beginning right on time and running right through the brand new album start to finish, Tuesday’s show was Simpson in all his glory—and it was, without a doubt, special. With his regular band augmented by a three-piece trombone/trumpet/sax horn section, they thrilled an as-packed-as-I’ve-ever-seen it Rough Trade with standout live versions of every track, pushing the boundaries of genre.
So often these run-through-the-album shows have a stilted feeling as bands readjust between songs and try to recreate magic from studio sessions months in the past. This was not a problem for Simpson and Co., who showed that Sailor’s Guide plays like a live set with built-in peaks and valleys and a steady balance of oven-hot and freezer-cool songs. The audience was aflame from the get-go, but “Keep It Between the Lines” seemed to push things further with pedal steel and a blaring horns creating worlds-colliding magic behind Simpson’s once-in-a-generation tenor. Country has opened its arms to other types of music before, but over the course of his last two albums, Simpson seems to be doing the opposite: putting outlaw country on his back and carrying it straight to the mountains of soul, old school R&B and, of course, rock and roll.
Early in the set, Simpson joked that it was easy to separate the fans from the press because it was clear who was there to have fun and who was standing there “silently judging.” By the time the band reached their excellent take-ownership cover of Nirvana’s “In Bloom,” Simpson crooning, microphone in hand, while the steel-and-brass band cruised beautifully behind him, it was clear that everyone’s judgment, silent or not, was that they were indeed lucky to be in the room. As if designed for a live performance, the album builds in its second half with the chunky-monkey rock and roll bass-drums-guitar of “Brace for Impact (Live a Little)” and Simpson’s voice proving to be there with the best of them, taking the crowd up and up in “All Around You.” The emotions in those songs are real, and he paused to catch himself, telling the crowd “Remind me that next time I make a record about my life, I have to go out there and sing that fucking shit.” “Call to Arms” was a primal scream of a show closer, Simpson literally howling into the microphone as the overheated horn section filled the room with sound while the rhythm section got the crowd’s heart racing one last time. And that was that, a very special album-release show—no encore promised, certainly no encore necessary. How’s that for truth in advertising? —A. Stein | @Neddyo