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Monday, April 20, 2015

Live Review: Sturgill Simpson Dazzles at the Fillmore

Posted By on Mon, Apr 20, 2015 at 9:54 AM

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Sturgill Simpson
April 18, 2015
The Fillmore

Better than:
Any of the platinum-selling "bro country" acts currently stinking up radio airwaves and arenas.

If you've been living under the impression that country music has by and large devolved into one of the most soulless, cookie-cutter genres of our bleak modern age — see this stupefying mash-up of six recent country hits on YouTube for proof — you'd be right. But the fact that rising honky-tonk revivalist Sturgill Simpson's Saturday show at the Fillmore sold out months in advance is a hopeful sign that the country music pendulum might be swinging in the right direction.

While the Kentucky-born songwriter has been pursuing a career in music for the better part of the last decade, he remained a fairly underground phenomenon until the release of his second solo album, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, last May. Mixing his traditionalist outlaw sound with cosmic lyrics and elements of psychedelia, the record earned Simpson universal praise, numerous late-night talk show appearances and gigs supporting the likes of Willie Nelson and the Drive-By Truckers (who he opened for at the Fillmore during a three-night run last November) that raised his profile significantly.  

Simpson's rise in popularity brought some evidence of bro-dom at Saturday's packed concert (judging from the number of ironically worn cowboy hats and drunk, high-fiving mooks in flannel present), but the audience was mostly made up of enthusiastic fans who boisterously sang along with practically every song he played. Simpson made an unusual choice of tour support, bringing along Nashville-based DJ collective Electric Western instead of a live band. Though Jacob Jones didn't quite ignite a dance party at the Fillmore, his selection of early rock, '60s soul, garage and surf made for an entertaining soundtrack as the floor gradually filled to overflowing.

Simpson took the stage at 10 p.m. on the dot, saying hello to the whooping and hollering crowd before diving headlong into a rollicking take on "Sitting Here Without You" from his 2013 debut High Top Mountain.  Strumming fiercely over the the swinging, propulsive beat laid down by bassist Kevin Black and drummer Miles Miller, Simpson locked in with the rhythm section as the group's not-so-secret weapon, Estonian guitar virtuoso Laur Joamets, unleashed a torrential flurry of bent notes and rapid-fire chicken picking on his Fender Telecaster.
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Expanded to four members since their last visit to San Francisco with the addition of keyboard player Jeff Crow, Simpson's band remains a marvel of nuanced versatility. Whether providing sensitive support to allow the lyrical weight of heartfelt ballads "Water in the Well" and "Just Let Go" sink in or stomping through crowd-pleasing singalongs like "Life of Sin" and the self-deprecating "You Can Have the Crown," the quartet of backing musicians has rightfully earned a reputation as one of the best young bands working today, country or otherwise. 

As much as has been made of Simpson's eerie echo of '70s-era Waylon Jennings (there's no questioning he has a similar timbre to his voice), seeing the singer perform live revealed more of his musical influences. The blazing guitar showcases "Poor Rambler" and "Railroad of Sin" nodded to the six-string wizardry of Roy Clark and Chet Atkins, while "Some Days" brought a hint of swampy funk to the proceedings that recalled Jerry Reed. 

Simpson held off on playing "Turtles All the Way Down," the lead single from Metamodern Sounds, until late in the show. Joamets' shimmering chords and lap-steel flavored filigree enveloped the song's catalog of psychotropic drugs and cosmic ruminations in a warm fuzzy glow. But the set's real climax came with the surprise cover that closed the show.
Earlier in the evening, the band had delivered its popular country torch song interpretation of When In Rome's late 1980s electro-pop hit "The Promise" to a wild crowd response. But when the extended jam on the Osborne Brothers' bluegrass standard "Listening to the Rain" morphed into an electrifying take on the T-Rex glam-rock classic "The Motivator," the audience lost its collective shit. Those who caught Simpson and company in the relatively intimate confines of the Fillmore Saturday should count themselves lucky; they are not likely to be playing a venue that size in San Francisco ever again. 

Critic's Notebook
  • Despite having several drawers full of band t-shirts, I couldn't resist adding another one to the pile once I saw the psychedelic wanderer and astronaut designs being sold at the merch table.

  • Country songs may have more than their fair share of beer and whiskey references, but the number of wasted guys spotted getting chastised by their dates for overindulging indicated that perhaps the younger generation isn't ready to imbibe the same volume as Waylon, Willie and the boys. 

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Dave Pehling

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