Live Review – Sturgill Simpson at ACL Live

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Sturgill Simpson embarked on the second night of a two-night sold-out stop at The Moody Theater in downtown Austin, on Friday (5-6). It was the second night on his current tour, and one of the first glimpses of what fans can expect from an expanded lineup, and a new sound that veers slightly away from the country style Sturgill’s career has been known for up to this point.

Seeing how Sturgill has been so outspoken about his desire for folks to listen to his new album A Sailor’s Guide to Earth in sequential order, it was no surprise the show started off with the album being played in its entirety and relatively loyal to the recording, aided by a three-piece horn section on a riser at the back of the stage, and guitar player Laur Joamets switching back and forth from lead to pedal steel guitar. The live rendition of the new album was inspired and salty, and had the ACL Live crowd enraptured.

As many may have seen already, Sturgill spends some of the time in the current lineup not playing guitar, but walking around the stage with the mic. “I’m still trying to figure out what do do with my hands,” Sturgill said at one point. During the second song, “Breaker’s Roar,” he sat on the edge of the stage with his feet dangling down into the buffer zone between the stage and the crowd as he quilled out the quiet song like he was conducting story time for grade schoolers. During another slower song, he sat down on the row of vintage amps on stage—their power bulbs glowing like a disjointed string of Christmas lights across the front of the horn riser. When he was playing guitar, Sturgill would switch between acoustic and electric, though it was strictly electric for the Sailor’s Guide to Earth material.

sturgill-simpson-acl-sittingThe folks waiting for the more country-oriented songs would have to be patient for a while longer after the end of the Sailor’s Guide to Earth segment, as selections like Simpson’s cover of “The Promise,” and other more rock-sounding efforts continued into the 2nd half of the show. Then Sturgill sang a rousing version of his Gospel-feeling song “Walk That Road,” and from there the sound turned country hard and heavy. The half-timed “Livin’ The Dream” came next, leading into “Long White Line” that Sturgill prefaced by waylaying those who would question his use of horns in the band.

“People talk so much shit. They can kiss my ass. Another famous country singer from around here used horns. Nobody gave him shit.”

During “Long White Line,” Sturgill also changed the lyric in one stanza from, “Looking for the end of that long white line” to “Looking for some more horns for my band.”

Piss and vinegar pockmarked the presentation from Sturgill, as it has most all of the shows at the start of his current tour. At one point, he pointed out someone in the crowd on their cell phone. “Look at him, checking his Facebook and shit,” Sturgill chided as the crowd craned their necks in unison, following Sturgill’s hairy eyeball affixed on the guilty party.

After rattling off a good dose of country material, and making reference to a show at Austin’s Rattle Inn a few years ago that only eight people attended (present company included), the concert went in a strange direction, with the band playing an extended interval of funk riffs, including one that didn’t seem to be tied to any specific song, didn’t really go anywhere, and seemed even more self-indulgent than putting horns in your country band.

“We’re going to stretch it out a little,” Sturgill said into the microphone, and then proceeded to hang on the same generic funk riff for a good four minutes without any real change or progression whatsoever. Part of the problem was there was no real groove to lay down in. Finding a groove is not just about playing the right notes and switching over to the wah wah pedal. It’s a feeling that was hard to discern if Sturgill’s band ever found. Even at the risk of being called out from the stage, some folks started fumbling with their phones as the funk portion of the presentation became elongated, and seemed to expose the difficulty of trying to fill two hours without the aid of an opening band.

sturgill-simpson-laur-2Three or four times in one song, Sturgill and the band would enact these sonic flourishes that basically involved Sturgill and Laur Joamets raking their guitar strings as fast as they could while sliding a bar chord pattern up the neck to create a crescendo. This has become a signature of the Sturgill Simpson live experience, but usually once, maybe twice in a set. After the 7th or 8th time affixed to various songs, it had lost its magic, like watching the woman getting sawed in half over and over to the point where the entertainment value was lost to cliché, even if you still hadn’t figured out the trick.

After the indiscriminate funk number, Sturgill said, “The next record is gonna be reggae. And it will be made with a Roland TR-8 drum machine and a bunch of synthesizers just to piss people off!”

At this point late in the show, the anger being emitted from the stage didn’t feel spontaneous and in good spirit. It felt palpable and premeditated. As a country music fan or someone who started listening to Sturgill’s music within the confines of country, you couldn’t help but to feel somewhat alienated.

It is unlikely Sturgill Simpson’s next album will be a drum machine-driven reggae affair. But the aggressiveness towards fans who put their heart and soul into Simpson’s music and career, built him up from playing in front of eight people in an Austin bar to selling out two consecutive nights at a 2,700-capacity venue, and who may have wished that Sturgill would have stuck a little closer to his country roots, was hard to overlook.

Along with the misnomers about Sturgill Simpson being akin to Waylon Jennings or a purveyor of “drug music,” a similar misconception is that Sturgill’s music is only bred from love. Maybe this is partly true of his recorded efforts, even though within his albums are hidden and overt jabs at plenty of institutions and ideologies. But in the live situation, Simpson is at his best when anger is guiding his hands. Anger is where the Sunday Valley sound emanated from (Sturgill’s first band), and anger is where Sturgill finds the uninhibited passion to be himself.

Throughout Sturgill Simpson’s rise—through the High Top Mountain and Metamodern Sounds era—his anger was noticeably missing. That is why despite the praise he was receiving from many sectors, and the undeniable traction his career was experiencing, those who saw what Sturgill Simpson was capable of previously knew he was holding something back. By choking his anger back, the result was an awkwardness on stage—a disquieted energy where he didn’t know what to do with himself as a performer. 2013 Sturgill Simpson would have never had the rocks to walk out on stage without a guitar to help steady his hands and hide behind.

Beyond the new material, or any talk of horn sections, the unleashing of Sturgill Simpson’s anger is the strongest takeaway from what you can expect from his current live show. He’s moves around the stage like a lion circling his prey. He points to the crowd to finish lines of songs. He calls out members of the crowd or things he doesn’t like, be damned the repercussions, or what may end up on YouTube or in the press the next day. And he is a much more magnetic and engaging performer for it. If you had overlooked Sturgill’s singing prowess before, there is no escaping it now. It all blossoms out from his vocals.

And forget the idea of Sturgill Simpson killing his ego. To stand in front of 2,700 people and sing intimate songs meant for your son and blistering covers of well-recognized rock anthems, you must be an egomaniac. And that’s okay. It comes with the territory. It’s arguably essential. And instead of acting guilty about it, it should be embraced and channeled into entertainment value. Music is not refined visual art hanging in a quiet space, it is raucous entertainment at its core, and a little bit of cockiness is necessary for any performer to pull off what Sturgill is trying to accomplish.

But there is collateral damage in the way Sturgill is being so pointed and indiscriminate with his words and approach at the moment. He’s trying to piss people off as if it’s a virtue, or an element of performance art. That is not entirely a poor decision in itself, but some of the people who are at the receiving end of his pointed words are the very same people who helped him ascend to his current musical pulpit.

The misconceptions about Sturgill’s current music run both ways. Sure, there are some closed-minded rednecks who fail to understand that even Bob Wills used horns in his music, and Merle Haggard died with a saxophone player in his band. But many others were just hoping for a more country effort from his last record, and are still looking forward to one in the future, if they’re not turned off by the scorn coming from Sturgill these days, and aided by the “non genre” press who only know country music from the outside looking in.

Upon the “country-ness” of his music, Sturgill’s message has been mixed at best lately, and downright contradictory at other times, and this has put some of his fans in a difficult position. Instead of building bridges, Sturgill Simpson is drawing lines in the sand, and looking to weed out certain elements from his fan base that he’s apparently embarrassed by. At a recent show in Dallas, Simpson said, “But don’t you worry, you won’t see my ass at the CMA’s or the ACM’s. Cornball, hayseed bullshit. It might take 10 years, but there’s gonna come a day when they need me, and I’ll give them two of THESE”—holding up his two middle fingers in the air.

Years ago a move like this might be considered defiant and cool. It certainly was when Sturgill sang “You won’t hear my songs on the radio, see me on the CMA,” in his song “Life Ain’t Fair”—a song he later changed that lyric to, and eventually would completely strike from his set due to his own disillusionment with the message. Now Simpson’s perspective has regressed, and this sentiment seems childish, spiteful, and outdated coming from him. First, there is nothing cornball or hayseed about either the ACM’s and CMA’s. Cornball and hayseed would be a spectacular improvement to these presentations. And by flipping them off, he’s basically flipping off Chris Stapleton by proxy, who is the reigning king of both at the moment. He’s also calling out “hayseeds,” which is offensive slang to many of the same rural people who identified with Simpson’s earlier music.

Things are changing in country, and for the better. Progress is finally being made in the effort to return the music back to the people, to open the music up to more creative freedom, and to usher in more diversity in the performer base. And Sturgill Simpson was supposed to be a part of that effort. And he would have been if he had just stuck a little bit closer to his established sound and message, and didn’t start hurling grenades from the stage. Sturgill was at the tip of the spearhead, and partly responsible for this new upward momentum. Now quite frankly, he risks jeopardizing that momentum by side stepping it and impugning the people who want to see continued improvement.

If Sturgill Simpson wants to run off and make a different style of music, that’s completely within his right as an artist, and he should be supported in that endeavor by his true fans, especially if the effort is admirable, which A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is. And it has always been unfair to Sturgill, or anyone to lump the burden of being a “Country Music Savior” on their shoulders. But Sturgill also can’t turn around and blame others for being ignored by country music institutions. It was all right there for Sturgill. Chris Stapleton had shattered the glass ceilings for him. No “hayseeds” or “assholes” were in his way. Only Sturgill himself.

There has always been an unsettledness about Sturgill (see above), but the unsheathing of it during the early shows of his current tour has been a little unnerving. And though it will be raining plaudits from the majority of media outlets in the always-sunny echo chamber that permeates the music press these days, this dissenting opinion is not solo. Kevin Curtain writing for the Austin Chronicle about the 1st installment of Sturgill’s Austin stint, and partially blaming a bad sound setup and a sore throat from Sturgill concluded, “Eventually, they … closed down a strange two-hour set that felt like the first night of tour – propelled equally by fearlessness and discomfort. Rule one in Sturgill Simpson’s sailing guide: Captains don’t wear life jackets.”

If you asked yourself at the beginning of the evening, “Are the horns essential?” Only on one or two of the songs would you have answered, “yes,” even though there were a few more that featured horn solos. But horns were not the problem here. It was Sturgill’s attitude. It disrupted the positive vibe that wanted to take hold of the room, was counter to the message of his music, and the final third of the set felt devoid of message or direction at all.

Sturgill Simpson put on an enjoyable show and will have no issues having most attendees eating out of his hands as he criss crosses the country with his new lineup and material. But the final portion of his second Austin show was one of the few disappointing efforts witnessed in his career, and the anger towards well-meaning country fans is unhelpful and confounding.

1 1/4 Guns Up (6/10)