Philadelphia is not known as a haven for country music, but you wouldn’t know it during Sturgill Simpson’s show at TLA last Friday night. An eclectic mix of hipsters and country fans packed the TLA – a diverse mix of facial hair floating over a sea of flannel – all excited to see the alt-country star.
Calling Sturgill Simpson a country singer runs the risk of people misconstruing what he is, but, in reality, he is a classic country singer by its very definition. New-age pop country has forced great country artists to find their niche living on the fringe of country, indie rock and Americana. Artists like Simpson and Jason Isbell have taken off the past couple years by releasing some of the best albums in the industry and playing quality live shows. That has allowed them to dominate that fringe.
Seeing a country show on South Street in Philly on a Friday night is a little surreal. Also bizarre is a big live music act tapping a stand-up comedian as an opener instead of another band. Simpson had friend Billy Wayne Davis open his show for a rowdy TLA crowd. Philadelphia is a notoriously tough city for comedy – that was exacerbated by a lubed-up crowd ready for a rock show that was not prepared for a comedy opener. Davis acknowledged this and spent the majority of his set going after drunken hecklers who epitomized the worst of Philly concertgoers.
Sturgill Simpson is an incredibly interesting guy with a great story. Simpson is a former Navy vet and freight-shipping laborer that finally struck gold after a decade of gigging around the Pacific Northwest. In a three-hour interview on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast, Sturgill talks about being an alcoholic and how he was able to get past it and rise to his current stardom. Taking a classic country sound right out of the outlaw country book, Simpson merges lyrics about redemption and metaphysics and psychedelic drugs to create something both retro and never before heard.
For those in the crowd that hadn’t seen a Sturgill Simpson live show in the past, I am not sure they knew what to expect. While there are some definitive elements on Simpson’s debut, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, that lend themselves well to full-band accompaniment, the extended jams and no-frills rock and roll surprised those expecting simply a man and his guitar. Right from the jump, the opener “Some Days” included an extended jam that perked up the crowd. Simpson’s band has real talent and they showed it early and often. “Life of Sin,” one of the highlights of Simpson’s debut, highlighted solos from keyboardist Jeff Crow and guitarist/slide guitarist Laur Joamets.
Simpson came through Philadelphia last winter as well, also at TLA. That show sold out, but as Simpson noted during the show, he was sick and “almost passed out on stage.” Simpson certainly wasn’t sick this time around as his deep, classic-country growl sounded great meshed with the two guitars, bass, drums, keys and electric organ. “Long White Line” was the first song that elicited a crowd sing-a-long and led to a solid run of tunes in the middle of the set highlighted by a cover of Ralph Stanley’s “Sharecropper’s Son” showing off his past bluegrass experience.
Simpson kept the energy fluctuating with slow ballads and raucous rock and roll throughout the show. The song juxtaposition reached its peak when Simpson took a page from the jam band playbook by working “You Can Have the Crown,” off his self-released 2013 album directly into his hit single “Turtles All the Way Down.” Fresh off winning Song of the Year for the song at the Americana Music Awards the previous week, Simpson belted out his hit about psychedelic drugs, redemption and cosmology. Simpson has previously discussed the genesis of the song as being in reference to a far out theory about how the universe works. There are people who believe that the universe sits on the back of a cosmic turtle which sits on the back of another cosmic turtle which sits on the back of another cosmic turtle and so on. “It’s just turtles all the way down.”
Simpson had no encore (something I am a huge fan of); he just rocked out for a hair under two hours. Solid, no frills straightforwardness is a perfect representation of both Simpson’s music and his personality. He doesn’t come across as a rock star, though he clearly is one. He seems confident, but timid and is at his best when he lets loose and bares his emotions vocally. The follow-up to a critically acclaimed debut is always difficult, but Simpson clearly has no problem meeting high expectations.