Sturgill Simpson & Willie Nelson Ring in New Year at ACL

willie-nelson-sturgill-simpson-004“Mark my words. 2012 will be the year of Sunday Valley and Sturgill Simpson.”

This was the encapsulation of my thoughts after seeing Sturgill Simpson perform with his previous band at the Pickathon Festival in Portland in 2011, and naming the experience one of the best live performance of the year.

Then almost exactly a year later, and after Sturgill dumped the Sunday Valley name, and I saw him again at The Rattle Inn in west Austin, and once again he impressed. In the review I jeered myself for the 2012 prediction not coming true, yet doubled down on the idea that it eventually would.

“About this time last year, I was telling everybody that 2012 was going to be the year of Kentucky-born and Nashville-based singer / songwriter Sturgill Simpson. ‘Mark my words,’ I said…Now, sitting a stone’s throw from the end of 2012, it might be appropriate for me to eat those words. Or maybe even more appropriately, dig hard with the pen and overwrite that last ‘2’ into a ‘3.’ 2013 friends, mark my words! 2013 will be the year of Sturgill Simpson.”

Sturgill made reference to that show at The Rattle Inn when he took the stage at ACL Live in downtown Austin to a sold out audience on December 30th, sharing the bill with a man who Sturgill covered on his first solo album High Top Mountain, and whose bronze statue sits out front of the theater on a street that bears his name. That’s Willie Nelson I’m talking about for the folks not familiar with the Austin landscape. “There was like twelve people there,” Sturgill said of the Rattle Inn show to make reference to just how far he had come, and even that head count may have been a little embellished. “Here we are opening up for our heroes.”

When an artist reaches their 80’s it may be a little late to start a tradition. But they’re trying to make Willie Nelson playing ACL Live on New Year’s Eve into one, and with the interest in the event being such, boosters decided to add an extra day on the front side for more people to bask in the annual experience. Sturgill Simpson was tapped to be the opener for the occasion, though with Austin’s Amy Cook playing a short opening set, Sturgill being afforded a full hour performance, and a sense in the crowd that many were there to see Sturgill just as much as Willie, it had the feeling of a double billing.

Where the last time Sturgill made a stop in Austin he was sporting a conversion van stenching of the road, now there was a big primary blue tour bus idling across the street from The Moody Theater, driven from Nashville just for this event. The venue sits on the same sized footprint of its studio predecessor on the University of Texas campus blocks north of the current location, but features a mezzanine and upper balcony for much more capacity—something viewers may not be privy to when watching an Austin City Limits event on PBS. Still, not a seat in the house sits farther than 75 yards from the stage, making ideal sight lines from virtually any perch, despite the blacked-out nature of the theater’s interior not offering not much benefit aside from creating ideal conditions for the venue’s primary purpose of television tapings.

But the cameras were off on this night, and this allowed for a more relaxed and festive pre-New Years mood. The backstage portions of the Moody are quite cavernous, with staging areas to facilitate large stage works for theater productions, ample dressing rooms, a spacious cafeteria, and a couple of relaxed communal sitting areas. The lavatories right beside the backstage entrance smelled like they shared the same ventilation system as Willie & Co.’s congregating areas, as a contact high could be afforded if you dottled too long waiting for your chance at the paper towel dispenser.

After Amy Cook warmed up the crowd on a bitter cold night, the lights in the foyer flickered, and the gallery was packed by the time Sturgill took the stage. Tight and well-tuned from playing down-to-the-minute sets on tour with Zac Brown, Sturgill and the boys chewed through their songs like clockwork, with Simpson showing fire and animation, bounding across the large stage, stepping up on the drum riser, and punching the stops and ends of songs with his Martin acoustic’s head stock.

If Sturgill has to share the spotlight with anyone these days, it’s his guitar player Laur Joamets. “I had to go all the way to Eastern Europe to find a guitar player that plays country music,” Sturgill said to the crowd. “And I’m from Nashville.”

But there wasn’t a lot of chit chatting from Simpson, sometimes butting songs up right against each other, leaving no room for applause. This left ample space for all the important songs to be played, and some new concoctions, including a T. Rex tune incorporated into an Osborne Brothers song—the type of collaboration that has afforded Sturgill both fiery adoration and a few critics. Laur Joamets took numerous long instrumental breaks, and the crowd roared loudly when given the opportunity, including coming to their feet at the end of Sturgill’s impressive set.

Simpson’s voice sounded like it was made for the Moody Theater: rounded, bellowing, and bolstered with the weight of powerful stories behind it and an undying commitment to full effort from Sturgill the moment he takes the stage. One wouldn’t be surprised after experiencing the show if Sturgill’s voice was still echoing through that chamber, if only as ghosts of the mind, or if permanent fingerprints were left on the Moody’s walls from the performance.

After a well-apportioned intermission where the wisdom of the amount of bathroom facilities afforded to the new theater’s crowd was put to the test, Willie Nelson and his Family Band took the Austin City Limits stage like they have done so many countless times before, including for the pilot episode of what has become the longest-running live music show on television standing at some 40 years. The last few years have seen Willie’s age noticeably catching up to him, though when he decides to call on it, the flashes of high register runs or arpeggiated acoustic guitar brilliance can still be heard, though sometimes between broken phrasings and timing flubs. But to bask in Willie’s presence is what had drawn people to the performance, including some from out-of-state, and when the huge Texas flag was unfurled behind the stage and Willie struck that first chord of “Whiskey River,” the atmosphere was electric all the way through the final gospel singalong.

The only question left as Willie was singing “Will The Circle Be Unbroken,” “I’ll Fly Away” and other gospel standards was if we’d see Sturgill Simpson re-emerge to take advantage of the opportunity to share the stage with one of his biggest heroes, or would his bashful nature prevail. Nelson’s offspring, including daughter Amy Nelson, and the recently-emerging granddaughter Raelyn Nelson led a group of others of the Nelson clan out on stage to sing along with Papa Willie, but it took a while to coax Sturgill to join. Finally emerging on stage, his humility showed itself, and he was too busy looking awed by the short braided man standing a healthy elbow swing away from him to focus on finding the right pitch to actually lend anything to the performance. But that was fine, and the crowd re-welcomed Sturgill with a roar as the members of Sturgill’s band slowly joined him and the others on stage.

No more predictions are in order for Sturgill Simpson now, at least not at this very moment. 2014 finally was the year of Sturgill Simpson, validated by many opinions shared across the country music press corps building a consensus around him as the year’s critical success, and the holidays were a moment to sit back and reflect on this success and not worry about what may come next. But just like Willie in 1974 when he took the Austin City Limits stage, nobody could have imagined where he’d be bound from there. And looking at Sturgill, his future seems similarly promising and limitless.

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