“I know this is an opera house, but you don’t have to be so formal,” remarked Sturgill Simpson early into a sold-out, two-evening run last night at, fittingly, the Opera House. Truth to tell, the invitation was probably a necessity. The capacity crowd acted liked it didn’t really know what to expect when the program kicked off and it was certainly left scratching its head when the show was over.
Musically, the Jackson-born, Versailles-reared Simpson’s game plan revolved around traditional country. That was most apparent in his singing which, despite all his frequent comments to the contrary, seemed fixated on the deep outlaw drawl of Waylon Jennings. That proved a potent reference last night as Simpson regularly chose instances to pump up the country tenor of his singing to amply dramatize a verse or chorus. The drawback? Such heavy vocal punctuation, which didn’t seem apparent during the few times he spoke to the audience, tended to steamroll over the narratives of his songs. In Simpson’s case, such a drawback weighed in more when one factored in the depth and detail of his songwriting.
Backing him was a seven member unit that included a three-member New Orleans horn section. Here is where things got really interesting: As rooted as Simpson seemed to be to country tradition, he was also was industrious enough to shift the music to areas of Memphis- and Muscle Shoals-style soul in a way similar to what fellow Kentuckian Dwight Yoakam did during the mid 1990s.
But as flexible as the music surrounding Simpson’s sense of country soul was, his repertoire turned out to be surprisingly regimented. He opened with five selections from his 2013 solo debut album High Top Mountain that relished in vintage country settings typified by the show opening shuffle and dash within Sitting Here Without You and the more tempered ramble of Time After All.
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After a cover of the country staple You Don’t Miss Your Water was performed as a slice of Muscle Shoals-inclined R&B and served as an interlude, Simpson dug in deep with complete performances of his 2014 sophomore album Metamodern Sounds in Country Music and the new A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. Both turned loose Estonian guitarist/pedal steel ace Laur Joamets, who piloted Metamodern’s trippier accents (specifically the wiry, outer space squeals that wormed in an out of It Ain’t All Flowers) as well as much of the more nautically themed father-son fare from A Sailor’s Guide that tossed the music much closer to soulsville (in particular, the groove saturated Brace for Impact and the torchier Oh Sarah).
Everything coalesced — or collided, depending on your tolerance for the more rough-hued tone Simpson adopted in performance as opposed on record — on the album’s vitriolic finale Call to Arms, where vocals, guitar and brass meshed into a brassy rampage of rock and funk.
Then came the biggest surprise: Nothing. No encore, no real spoken adieu, just an instantaneous lights-up and a quick stage exit. A few patrons seemed miffed at Simpson bucking such a tired and expected performance rite. But given the scope, drive and sheer stylistic might of this 110-minute country and soul blitz, no one in the house had any justifiable reason to feel jilted.
Sturgill Simpson performs again at 8:30 tonight at the Opera House. The performance is sold out.