Detroit,Michigan (Febuary 29th,2020)- Taking a brief break at the start of his show Saturday night at the Masonic Temple Theatre in Detroit, Michigan, Sturgill Simpson promised “periodic moments of uncertainty….mixed with a whole lot of music thrown in for your listening pleasure”.
If your not familiar with Sturgill Simpson, his words mean nothing in particular, but in an indiscriminate way, they speak volumes. Simpson is a defiant, self-possessed country star – the rare kind who routinely violates the codes of Nashville songcraft and industry decorum, yet has a Grammy for Best Country Album for his 2015 release, A Sailors Guide To Earth, tucked away in his closet.
Fronting a four-member band with himself handling all guitar duties, Simpson was on course to further deconstruct an image he has seemingly despised – that of country outlaw. The collective wrecking ball to that seemingly undeserved reputation is his 2019 release, Sound & Fury, a collection of restless angst that more than once addressed stardom and its warped influences on personal freedom.
But what was happening onstage at the Masonic Temple Saturday was a master showman telling his story and portraying his anger against an industry with music, along with some very pointed lyrics. Lets just say it was not some indiscriminate setlist thrown together for just the enjoyment of the fans.
Simpson and his band sounded alive and alert, as they worked through all 10 songs off Sound & Fury, much to the chagrin of the sell-out crowd. Stripped of their studio persona, the band’s gestures felt muscular and efficient, pushing Simpson’s shadowy baritone out into the light where it belonged. On “Fastest Horse in Town”, the singer bemoaned his fame — “Oughta be watching the children play in the yard I never see” — but instead of self-pity, his voice lamented with a genuine homesickness that you practically could reach out and feel. Even better was “All Said and Done”, a personal take on the songwriter’s perceived demon about the dreadful hunch that every tune has already been written “two or three times.” Here, Simpson sounded as if he were valiantly questing across the void: “It’s enough to make anyone go insane when you find yourself forgetting all your own rhymes, giving up on the dreams floating around inside your brain.”
Thematically, the angst hit the boiling point with “Mercury in Retrograde”, an unflinching take on pop star intrusion (“They all just come on in, asking me what all my songs mean, wonderin’ if they’re all about them”). But overall it was the sonic charge of Sound & Fury performed cover to cover that packed a far greater wallop than anyone truly expected. The new music balanced aggressive guitar licks with the sonic wails of a analog synthesizer, giving the show a sound that was simultaneously modern and retro. The one country element that couldn’t be overlooked though, were Simpson’s vocals. It was easy to escape expectations and cut loose on guitar during the predominantly instrumental show opener “Ronin”, but conversely, as soon as the singing ignited “Remember to Breathe” and “Sing Along”, that deep, unalterable country tenor reawakened.
Fortunately, the second stanza of the night had Simpson dipping back into his catalog for cuts and cover tracks that his fans were much more familiar with. Opening a 12 song run with a cover of Willie Nelsons” I’d Have to Be Crazy”, “Oh Sarah” and “Breakers Roar” – the slower pace provided a bit of breath after all the energy expelled on the Sound & Fury tracks. Working primarily through his first three albums allowed Simpson to demonstrate his impressive vocal range that has set him apart from his peers. From a soulful rendition of the funky “It Ain’t Flowers”, to the high energy “Some Days”, along with a cover of William Bells “You Don’t Miss Your Water”, had even the staunchest fans nodding with approval.
Lost amidst the red stage lights and searing guitars was slow but continual exodus of fans throughout Simpsons set. Whether it was the lack of familiarity with the cuts from Sound & Fury or those just there to see Tyler Childers who opened the evening, it was readily apparent there was a disconnect at times between the artist and fans. The exodus itself had no discernible impact on Simpson or his band, which features Detroiter’s Chuck Bartels on bass and Bobby Emmett on keyboards who ventured onward like a well-travelled band often does.
Simpson finished off the night on a high note with a jam session that had the remaining fans fully engaged and savoring the moment. The evenings encore featured an epic rendition of “Call to Arms,” which included bits of T. Rex’s “The Motivator” and Jimi Hendrix’s “Machine Gun”, in a lengthy jam that probably would have kept Simpson and company on stage even longer if they weren’t up against the venues hard curfew.
Deserved or not, Sturgill Simpson does meet the criteria of an outlaw artist at first glance. The man does not conform to the establishments proto-typical country artist mold and appears to work against the grain of the industry every time he can. He does things his way, without being flamboyant, but when it comes right down to it, the only one he has to please is himself. If being true to your beliefs rubs people wrong, so be it. Sturgill Simpson is an artist who has won a Grammy continually doing things his way, right or wrong. His live shows are raw and full of selections that he alone has chosen to perform that convey his disdain of the music industry in general. That controversial style has won him a Grammy for Country Album of the Year, so in retrospect is being an outlaw so bad after all?