The Bomb Factory, Dallas
Saturday, May 7, 2016
It’s been a long road for Sturgill Simpson. A year and a half ago, in November 2014, Simpson packed Club Dada to capacity twice on the same cold, rainy night. At the time, he had come virtually out of nowhere to become the year’s breakout star and the man who many said would save country music. On Saturday night, he returned to Dallas, this time to play The Bomb Factory — a venue 10 times the capacity of Dada — and made clear just how he feels about being country's supposed golden boy.
"Cornball, hayseed bullshit," Simpson said, insisting that while his new album — A Sailor's Guide to the Universe, released in April — debuted at No. 1 on the country charts, he doesn't consider himself a part of the genre. “There’s gonna be a time when they need me, and this is what I’m going to say.” From there, he let his two extended middle fingers — a hearty fuck you to the country music establishment — do all the talking.
Simpson played without an opener, and was set to take the stage at 8:30. By 8:45, the massive crowd was getting antsy, hollering his name as though it would make him come out any sooner. When Simpson and his band walked out around 8:50, the roars from the crowd created a bizarre juxtaposition with his innately laid back demeanor.
As he launched into “Welcome to Earth,” the opening track from A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, his new album released in April, it was clear that the audience was contending with an entirely new Sturgill Simpson. Back in 2014, Simpson was beaten down by a country music establishment that didn’t respect or even acknowledge the music he was making; he was quiet, calm, even solemn. In 2016, though, Simpson has an infectious new energy and the kind of swagger that comes when a man finally gets his due.
Also new was Simpson sans guitar. For many artists, having a guitar strapped on is a sort of barrier to the vulnerability that comes with being on stage with just a microphone. Simpson embraced this new role as a showman and performer with a detached confidence, one that occasionally slipped away to reveal a charming geekiness. There was a bit of awkward dancing and some strange interludes of just standing around on the stage. These few moments in Simpson’s otherwise stellar performance were endearing glimpses of his subdued self of old.
But the result was quite musically stunning. With his seven-piece band, including three killer horn players, a funky new bassist and Estonian guitar prodigy Laur Joamets, Simpson blazed through every song on Sailor’s Guide, ranging from the gorgeous, melodic cover of Nirvana’s “In Bloom” to “Keep It Between the Lines,” a relentlessly funky ear worm that is indicative of how brilliantly Simpson balances sonic breadth and depth on this album.
Despite a strong showing of cowboy hats and one very convincing Chris Stapleton lookalike, this was no country show. Much of the material from Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, which was also performed in its entirety, got a hefty dose of horn and pulsing bass grooves. Some tracks segued into others, fading in and out for the occasional jam session. Simpson hasn’t quite shown off his guitar chops like that before while playing live, but last night’s dueling guitars bit with Joamets managed to be a high point of the evening.
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There were some moments of pure country, though, which feel all the more exciting in this incredible set that encompasses rock, soul and funk so effortlessly. As great as it would be to see Simpson return to his days of playing two hours of hard country, hearing him handle a cover of Otis Redding’s “You Don’t Miss Your Water” as adeptly as he juxtaposes his “Voices” with Randy Travis’ “Diggin’ Up Bones” is an unmatchable experience.
Simpson’s trajectory from Club Dada to The Bomb Factory has been staggering. As a fan, it’s easy to feel almost selfish and wish that 3,500 of your fellow concertgoers didn’t know who the hell Sturgill was so that you could see a show of this caliber in a tiny room whenever you feel like it. For those folks crammed into the back of the venue, angling for the zoomed-in camera phone shots that were their only views of the stage, it must have been especially difficult.
But it is encouraging. It’s exciting that Simpson is playing the same venue that just hosted a legend like Ms. Lauryn Hill a few days prior. Country music may be in a state of distress, but fans have clearly shown that they’re willing to support the good stuff with both their dollars and their presence.
As much of a beating as it is to be a country fan most of the time, there’s nothing like seeing Sturgill Simpson saying fuck you to the country music establishment while thousands of fans cheer to give even the most cynical asshole a little hope. It’s damn near a religious experience.