with Fantastic Negrito
Verizon Theatre at Grand Prairie
Friday, Sept. 8, 2017
First things first: Sturgill Simpson is a great lead guitarist. Letting the audience know that he doesn’t need hotshot Estonian Telecaster master Laur Joamets seemed to be Simpson’s primary concern at Friday night’s show.
Joamets and Simpson parted ways in March after four years and two albums together. It took little time to adjust to the lean and mean lineup, which has also shed the horn section for this tour.
It was jarring when the band stretched out the set-opening “Brace for Impact (Live a Little)” for 16 minutes with no sign of another guitarist as Simpson traded solos with keyboardist Bobby Emmett. But by the time Simpson strapped on a beautiful pale-blue Stratocaster for the third song, “Keep It Between the Lines,” the heavier bluesy single-guitar, four-piece configuration, with Emmett’s Hammond B-3 organ laying down a nasty bass line, made perfect sense.
Simpson has evolved record by record, so it shouldn’t be surprising that the band sounded so different the second time he played the area in support of 2016’s Grammy-winning A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. He was clearly having fun playing up and down the neck, and the raw sound — a meaty mix of blues, funk and Southern rock — amped up the swagger. Given how much country soul the horns add to the songs from the last album, their absence was hardly noticeable.
What was noticeably absent was restraint. Several songs had extended jams that, impressive as the instrumental prowess on display was, became tiresome over the course of the night. Then, paradoxically, it seemed like Simpson just wanted to get two of his most popular songs over with.
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“Turtles All the Way Down” felt rushed, and it sounded a bit dismissive when he introduced his cover of When in Rome’s “The Promise” to the mostly male crowd by saying, “This one is for the ladies.” He didn’t play his poignant take on Nirvana’s “In Bloom” from A Sailor’s Guide to Earth this time. There was a noticeable run on the bathrooms during the slow-smoldering version of Otis Redding’s “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” the one moment that really could have used that brass section.
Perhaps the best part of the night came a little more than midway through, when the backing players stepped offstage and Simpson played a few songs solo on an acoustic guitar. After all, Simpson’s classic country baritone voice and evocative songwriting made him a star, not fretwork pyrotechnics and 10-minute instrumental breaks. There wasn’t a hot guitar lick or quavering organ note that could match the emotional intensity of the verse in “Oh Sarah” when he cried out, “So forgive me if sometimes I seem a little crazy/ But goddamn, sometimes crazy is how I feel."
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“I can’t tell if y’all are extremely respectful or bored shitless,” he said toward the end of the night.
Bored would be overstating it, but indeed, this was not a rowdy crowd. Only a few scattered diehards could be bothered to get out of their seats, and by that point even those in the general admission pit probably would have availed themselves of chairs had there been any.
Still, not even the Verizon’s soul-sapping corporate blandness, $13 beers and $20 parking could make a Sturgill Simpson show anything less than good. But my expectations, based on his amazing Bomb Factory show last year and what I’ve heard about his legendary November 2014 doubleheader at Dada, were for more than merely good.
The opening Fantastic Negrito, winner of the 2015 NPR Tiny Desk Concert Contest, put on an enjoyable and lively, if not especially original, set of blues rock that included a reimagining of the folk classic “In the Pines” to a mostly empty theater. The highlight was the funky piano-led “Night Has Turned to Day” and his preacherly exhortation: “Take that bullshit and turn it into good shit.”