Sturgill Simpson With Cris Jacobs Cub Dada, Dallas Saturday, November 15, 2014
There are many of us who are deeply concerned about the future of country music. These are likely concerns that our parents had, and theirs before them. Every generation always thinks that the one after their own is going to fuck everything up, but when it comes to the current state of country music, this concern is scarily prescient. At this point it probably sounds pedantic, but there is nothing country about the music that Nashville is cranking out without thought today.
Nearly fifteen years after "Murder on Music Row," it's hard to argue that George Strait and Alan Jackson weren't entirely clairvoyant. They saw what money-grubbing record executives had in store for country music as it rapidly gained mainstream appeal, and what it meant not only for the Hag, the Possum, and Hank, but also for artists like Sturgill Simpson. And they were right: When's the last time you heard one of his tracks on country radio? My guess is never.
Which is why Saturday night's show at Club Dada was such an event. Even though Sturgill Simpson hasn't (yet) attracted the attention of big-money country music, there was no shortage of people who recognized that this would probably be the last time they'd see the Kentuckian in such a small room. The enthusiasm was such that Transmission Dallas, the show's promoter, had to add a second set to accommodate the demand. Originally scheduled outside, there was no way the band could have played in just-above-freezing temperatures and a light drizzle.
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Before Transmission Dallas announced that they would be adding a second show, a growing chorus of disgruntled fans began to complain that it had been oversold. These complaints, along with concerns about the sheer logistics of shoving that many people into Club Dada, completely dissolved once those 200 tickets had been added.
Still, many fans clearly had not gotten the message. They were prepared to deal with the elements. Most people in the crowd were shucking layers of coats and scarves as bodies quickly heated the small club. Fortunately, after moving the show inside, there were 200 more quick-fingered people who had the pleasure of seeing Sturgill Simpson on Saturday. The tickets were gone within 30 minutes of announcing, and I would bet that there were only a few no-shows. To say the least, Club Dada was entirely packed with people who had been waiting for this show for months.
I showed up early, only because Off the Record was offering a free early-entry wristband for people who stuck around to listen to an acoustic set from Greg Schroeder. He was good enough, but everyone in that room was talking about Sturgill Simpson. Metamodern Sounds In Country Music on vinyl was flying off the shelves, and people were just barely being patient in waiting for that goddamn door that separates Off The Record and Club Dada to open and the show to start.
When it finally did, opener Cris Jacobs went on promptly at 8:30. Jacobs, a Baltimore native, had been on the road with Simpson for a few weeks, and for good reason. Jacobs has an intensely soulful vibe with hints of Ray LaMontagne and played the hell out of a well-tuned cigar box guitar. Because of the second show, Jacobs' set had to be tight, and he only played a few songs before a quick set change, but there was much to like about his folky, stripped-down sound.
It didn't take long to swap over to Sturgill Simpson's stage, if only because there just isn't a lot of fanfare about his stage presence. A drum kit emblazoned with the Commonwealth of Kentucky was the only visible note of vanity. There are no elaborate backdrops or array of expensive guitars. Only Simpson, a lead guitarist, a bassist and a drummer.
The guys playing behind Simpson were almost good enough to steal the show away from their boss, particularly Estonian-born guitarist Laur Joamets. Joamets got his start playing in heavy metal bands and the Estonian version of American Idol, but he was born to play twangy tunes. Little Joe, as Simpson called him, is also called "The Telecaster Master," a description that is not at all inaccurate. Joamets is one of the best guitarists I have ever seen live, playing his Fender Telecaster like it came as easy as breathing. At two different points in the show, Joamets was playing so hard that he broke a string, and I refuse to believe it had anything to do with the cold weather.
Of course, the real star of the evening was Simpson's distinctive voice. After seeing him live, though, I found the critics' near-constant comparisons to Waylon Jennings very lazy. There is definitely a similar growl, but Simpson is a much more dynamic vocalist than Jennings. That may be a relatively controversial statement, but only if you weren't there on Saturday night. If anything, producing Simpson's voice flattens some of its depth and resonance, but Club Dada was the perfect venue to hear it at its best.
In the 90-minute marathon set, Simpson played just about every song that anyone would've wanted to hear from both of his solo albums. From the second that "Living the Dream" and "Long White Line" started, everyone in the crowd was loudly singing the words. This was a deeply dedicated audience. In the time that I spent close to the stage, no one moved, not even to get a beer. No one wanted to lose their intimate glimpse of the guy who deserves to be, and assuredly will be, playing a much bigger stage very soon.
Outside of the infectious and high-energy hard country tracks, the show was at its best in softer, quieter moments. Simpson's cover of Lefty Frizzell's classic "I Never Go Around Mirrors" was on par with the deeply emotional original, and had every woman in that audience (myself included) completely rapt. It sounds sexist, but there's no doubt that Simpson is very much a ladykiller, and I'm pretty sure he knows it. "This one's for the ladies, but that's bullshit," he said before starting one song. "They're all for the ladies." Indeed.
At some points, though, the crowd wasn't exactly friendly, to women or otherwise. There was a lot of tension, probably due to how crammed together everyone was. As I waited to get into the second set of the night, a drunk guy in a vest called a woman a "bitch" and a "slut" for having the nerve to point out that he was cutting in line. Later, when two peacocking dudebros in the center-front started to brawl, Simpson did not mince words in shutting them down. "Hey motherfuckers, cut that shit out," he yelled after halting his band. "We're all about love in here tonight."
It is strange to hear these kinds of hippy-dippy pronouncements and lyrics juxtaposed with hard, traditional country music, but entirely refreshing at the same time. There is authenticity in Simpson's voice, his pain and his playing, something that country music is in desperate need of. You may not believe that Luke Bryan has ever been on a dirt road, but you damn sure believe that Simpson has seen pain, love and the backside of the music business. That, and a lot of psychedelic drugs.
If anything was missing from Saturday night's show, it was the more psychedelic elements of Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. There isn't a fancy sound set-up, so most of the psych elements in tracks like "It Ain't All Flowers" were created by Little Joe's slide and guitar minus the distortion. This is not to suggest that it was any worse for the lack of effects, just different -- more reminiscent of the first record than the second.
The night's second set was ordered differently than the first, but played with the same flawless execution. Simpson didn't go on until midnight, which meant that the crowd was inevitably rowdier. When Simpson played the opening notes of "Living the Dream," that enthusiasm multiplied. This is a feat if only because many of the people in that second show had been there for the first, and they were still thoroughly fucking pumped to hear those songs a second time.
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In the end, the fans at Club Dada got to see Sturgill Simpson in his purest form. If it had been just Simpson and his beat up acoustic guitar, that would have been fine too. That's how you know all the critics weren't wrong, that the hype wasn't bullshit, and that Sturgill Simpson may actually be the man who can save country music.
This all may sound like hyperbole, but only if you weren't there Saturday night.
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