Sturgill Simpson took to The Wiltern Wednesday for the second show of an impressive two-night stand in support of A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. The performance, much like Simpson’s excellent new concept album cum letter to his newborn son, defied genres with an outlaw’s straightforward, don’t-give-a-shit attitude.
Sturgill’s ironclad baritone still sounds like Waylon Jennings reborn, thus undeniably country. But his band’s soulful bombast was more Muscle Shoals than Nashville, thanks to a three-piece horn section and a lead guitarist straight outta…Estonia?
The way in which Laur Joamets fits into the Sturgill story parallels the manner in which Simpson’s “indie country” fits into today’s musical landscape — it works, but it’s unlikely anyone saw it coming. After trialing a number of locals, Sturgill looked outside the box and found Joamets via producer Dave Cobb.
Herein lies a telltale piece of the puzzle: you might find Sturgill Simpson on Mars building glass clocks, before you’d find him donning a cowboy hat and bowing to the saccharine establishment of “country music.” Sturgill publicly established this unwavering stance in his 2013 song “Some Days,” in which he lamented, “I’m tired of y’all playing dress up and trying to sing them old country songs.”
And so there he was, sans hat, plus a trio of horns and one Estonian miracle, kicking off his set with “Living the Dream” and the sobering, grim gut punch, “I don’t have to do a goddamn thing, but sit around and wait to die.” It’s a hell of a line that sticks with you and the type of life insight waiting for you at the counter of a Waffle House.
By the time his blood was warm, Sturgill was three songs deep and amidst the outro to “It Ain’t All Flowers.” Simpson tipped his hand by sauntering off to the side of the stage, brimming with the confidence of a man who knows that his band’s got this.
The seven-man outfit could start “Railroad of Sin” with a Looney Tunes cartoon scramble, slow it down in “Voices” to expose Sturgill’s honeyed growl, or take JJ Cale’s “Call Me The Breeze” on a horn-led walk straight into a country-fried version of “When the Levee Breaks.”
Notably, the covers dropped into the setlist were often one artist’s original, later made famous as a cover performed by another act. Skynyrd popularized Cale’s tune, and don’t forget that Led Zeppelin did not write “Levee” (Kansas Joe McCoy & Memphis Minnie did), and it was Otis Redding that brought William Bell’s “You Don’t Miss Your Water” to the masses. Sprinkle in one by Willie, another by Nirvana, and Sturgill’s proud lack of allegiance to anything received validation.
To the midpoint of the set, Sturgill and band were curiously posted up a good 15 feet back from the front of the stage. Despite all the disparate sonic energy that was bouncing around the room, Simpson did not crack the fourth wall and venture closer to the people until “Some Days.”
Culled from High Top Mountain, the song includes a barrage of memorable lyrics. From the titular, “Well, some days you kill it and some days you just choke, some days you blast off and some days you just smoke,” to “Well, what’s a honky gotta do around here to get a little recognition?” it’s no wonder that following a duel with Jourmet’s slick slide work, circuital country funk horn lines, and hi-hat shine from Miles Miller, Sturgill finally kicked down that door and approached the front row with innocuous rock ‘n’ roll menace.
With 18 meaty jams chock-full o’ Southern psychedelia and demented Dixie already in the books, most shows would be winding down, if not already over. But this is when Sturgill Simpson stepped to the microphone and, without fanfare, started to play A Sailor’s Guide to Earth in its entirety.
When an artist chooses to execute an album from to start to finish, a between the lines read suggests that the LP is a cohesive story (or concept album) and that its creator has a certain degree of pride in their work. And he should.
The gentle lilt and pretty outro of “Breakers Roar” makes track two a crib-side lullaby. As the performance of the album progressed, it followed a trajectory in parallel with a boy’s upbringing. Lullabies come first, while wisdom on using motor oil need not be imparted ’til later down the road.
When Sturgill presented “Sea Stories,” we were on to joining the U.S. Navy, scoring on futons, getting high, rejection of a “politician’s war,” and seeing “damn near the whole damn world from the inside of a bar.” The shanty is the album’s best song and the best Jimmy Buffett song that Buffett never wrote.
At the start of Nirvana’s “In Bloom,” a woman made her way onto the stage in an effort to get Sturgill Simpson’s attention. Sturgill clearly saw reason to hear her out, which he did, as the band vamped the intro. After a minute or so, the two had a long and meaningful embrace, unlike any I’ve ever seen between rule-breaking fan and rock star.
After the show, under the Wiltern marquee, the woman urged me to share the story of Retired Air Force Tech. Sgt. Sean Harvell, a dear friend who identified with Simpson’s service in the U.S. Armed Forces and who had introduced her and her friends to his music. Real stuff.
“In Bloom” eventually blossomed beyond its A Sailor’s Guide to Earth glory, adding in horn parts, including a trumpet solo that channeled ’80s Stevie Wonder. “Brace For Impact” abandoned country vibes for straight up rock ‘n’ roll throw down.
Life’s most unanswerable questions surrounding love received due attention in the gorgeous late set rendition of “Oh Sarah,” a song penned also for his wife. Simpson said it all when he howled, “So forgive me if sometimes I seem a little crazy, but god damn, sometimes crazy is how I feel.”
With final barn-burning horn orgy, the album-closing “Call To Arms,” Sturgill Simpson reflected anew on his military experience and spoke to the chaotic underbelly of life’s pressures and not being able to “pay my fucking bills.” It was a lifetime away from the lullabies that introduce A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, but it was honest. What else would we expect from Sturgill Simpson?
Sturgill Simpson at The Wiltern Setlist:
Living the Dream
Life of Sin
It Ain’t All Flowers
The Promise (When in Rome cover)
Railroad of Sin
Long White Line
Call Me The Breeze (JJ Cale cover)
When the Levee Breaks (Kansas Joe McCoy & Memphis Minnie cover)
Sitting Here Without You
Time After All
Turtles All the Way Down
Just Let Go
I’d Have to Be Crazy (Willie Nelson cover)
You Don’t Miss Your Water (William Bell cover)
Sea Stories album:
Welcome to Earth (Pollywog)
Keep It Between The Lines
In Bloom (Nirvana cover)
Brace For Impact (Live A Little)
All Around You
Call To Arms
For more information: Sturgill Simpson