Thirteen months ago, modern country hero Sturgill Simpson took the Austin City Limits stage for the first time. At that show, he ripped through a taut set of country music, clutching his guitar while wearing a fierce stare that looked like he was burning a laser into the crowd. On Thursday, Simpson returned to the Austin City Limits stage to kick off his Sailor’s Guide to Earth Tour. He appeared as an artist in the process of a transformation.
This time around, Simpson played a soul man backed by a three-piece horn section. He abandoned the comfort of his guitar for several songs, belting out soul and funk while clutching the microphone stand instead.
The performance got off to a rough start. Simpson admitted he was suffering from Texas’ hellacious allergies, and they were likely affecting his singing. The first half of the show was affected by a bad sound mix. Simpson’s vocals boomed through the house speakers at a piercing level, and the mix in his monitors was visibly affecting his performance.
“I can’t really sing tonight, so we’re gonna rock the piss out of you,” he told the crowd after completing Sailor’s Guide in its entirety.
For the middle third of the show, Simpson and company played Meta Modern Sounds in Country Music in reverse order. The addition of the horn section gave a foreign vibe to the country songs, and while it was enjoyable, it didn’t feel like it had gelled together yet. Simpson seemed to be acutely aware of the audience’s perception of the new sound.
“They tell me I fucked up: There aren’t no horns in country music,” Simpson told the crowd. “I say tell Merle Haggard. That’s where I stole it.”
The horns played on every song. Sometimes they worked, other times they felt like they detracted from the spirit of the original songs. Sturgill doesn’t give a damn if you think they don’t belong, and you have to admire that about him. He is making fresh music the way he wants to make it, and it will take time to readjust an audience that was clamoring to hear him play straight ahead country music just one year ago.
Towards the last three-quarters of the show, the groove started to click with the band, and I could see the tremendous potential of this current lineup. They wrapped up the show with a few tracks off High Top Mountain, including a funkified version of “Old King Coal,” and an extended jam over “Some Days.” There was also a soulful cover of the Otis Redding classic “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” which felt like one of the most natural songs of the evening.
Overall, Simpson’s stage presence has improved significantly. Of the four times I’ve seen him perform, this was the most he’s ever engaged around with the audience.
“This room is too comfortable,” he said half-jokingly midway through the show.
He also told a quick story about how he convinced his ace guitarist, Laurs Joamets, via Skype to leave Estonia to come play for him in the United States.
While the performance had its rough patches, that’s to be expected on the first night of a tour. The show was still an incredible display of Simpson’s talent and power as a vocalist and artist. Simpson is master and commander of country seas, but he’s just begun his journey his into funk and soul. The water is choppy now, but come summer festival season, his outfit will be one of the funkiest bands on the high seas.
Simpson and company take the stage again tonight (May 6) at Austin City Limit’s Moody Theater.
“Welcome to Earth (Pollywog)”
“Keep It Between the Lines”
“Brace for Impact (Live a Little)”
“All Around You”
“Call to Arms”
“It Ain’t All Flowers”
“Just Let Go”
“A Little Light”
“Long White Line”
“Living the Dream”
“Life of Sin”
“Turtles All the Way Down”
“You Don’t Miss Your Water (Til Your Well Runs Dry)”
“Old King Coal”
“Sitting Here Without You”/Jam session/”Some Days”/Jam session