Sturgill Simpson arrived in Covington on Saturday night ready for the big time. Like most of the dates on the tour promoting last year's critically acclaimed Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, it sold out a month in advance. It was his second consecutive home state show (Miles Miller’s custom bass drum is even emblazoned with the Kentucky flag), and the audience included many of his friends and family. His stage production has grown more elaborate since his fall dates, adding synchronized lighting and a quartet of video boards flanking the back of the stage. Far more important than those trappings, though, is the fact that Simpson may be touring the finest collection of songs in country music right now, and he’s doing it with a lights-out band behind him.
Simpson moved through the first half of his setlist with the same surgical efficiency as his albums, knocking out eleven songs in the first 35 minutes. He opened with a pair off of his 2013 debut record, “Sitting Here Without You,” and the lovely ballad “Water in a Well,” before jumping into more familiar territory with “Long White Line.” All evening long, the Metamodern songs were received rapturously, and the rowdy Saturday night audience turned many of them into singalongs, adding their beer-soaked voices to Simpson’s effortless, resonant baritone. The group did a heavy take on the Stanley Brothers classic “Medicine Springs,” before nailing the trio of “A Little Light,” “Living the Dream,” and “Life of Sin.”
Simpson’s secret weapon is lead guitarist Laur Joamets (“we just call him ‘Little Joe’”), an Estonian export who had very little experience playing country music prior to joining the band. You wouldn’t know it to see him play, though. With a glass slide affixed to his left pinky finger and his right working the volume knob of a natural-finish Telecaster, Joamets flawlessly mimics the sound of a pedal steel guitar. Joined by Miller and bassist Kevin Black, the trio bring impressive depth and nuance to Simpson’s compositions.
They got their best workout on “Sometimes Wine,” a holdover from Simpson’s days with The Sunday Drivers. After the second chorus, the song eased into a spacey groove, and for the first time, Joamets really had time to show the depth of his chops. Over the ensuing ten minutes, he evoked everyone from Duane Allman to Tony Iommi, occasionally locking back in step with his bandmates before jetting off into the cosmos. Despite all of the sonic experimentation on the newest material, this was by far the trippiest section of the show, and one of the most impressive.
Metamodern’s heavy hitters formed the rest of the set’s backbone. The capacity crowd joined in Sturgill’s full-throated howl on “It Ain’t All Flowers,” and he played “Just Let Go” for his grandmother, who was in attendance. After a smirking run through “You Can Have The Crown,” the crowd erupted as Simpson strummed the opening chords of “Turtles All The Way Down.” Thematically and lyrically dense, the song (and indeed, the entire record) can be distilled down to its third verse thesis statement: “Love’s the only thing that’s ever saved my life.” Just as on the record, it’s an absolute stunner in concert.
The quartet returned for a two-song encore, starting with a faithful take on Willie Nelson’s “I’d Have to Be Crazy.” Simpson had nothing left to prove at this point, but managed to one-up himself anyway, taking The Osborne Brothers’ “Listening To The Rain” for a spin which somehow found itself in the middle of T. Rex’s “The Motivator.” It was a whiplash-inducing end to a revelatory evening, and the crowd remained chanting (unsuccessfully) for one more encore well after the house lights came up.
I would be remiss not to mention opening act Anderson East, whose half-hour set previewed upcoming album Cotton Field Heart. East’s voice immediately brings to mind early Ray LaMontagne, smoky and soulful, but with a bit of Alabama drawl rounding it out. He’s an impressive guitarist, sprinkling jazzy chords and interesting voicings over his songs and a cover of “Bartender’s Blues” by George Jones (a man “second only to Jesus in the house where I grew up”). The audience was a bit chatty through his set, but I would have been happy to hear a couple additional songs from him.
How big can Sturgill Simpson get? The recent success of offbeat such as Eric Church and Zac Brown proves there’s still life outside of bro country, but each of them has relied on pop/rock appeal to help propel them upwards. Can Simpson reach the same arena-headlining heights on songcraft alone? Only time will tell. For now, he’s handily selling out bigger and bigger clubs and theaters behind a self-released record. Imagine what he can do with the force of the Atlantic Records PR machine behind him. We can only hope he follows through on his closing promise: “We’ll see y’all again real soon.”
Sitting Here Without You
Water in a Well
Long White Line
Time After All
A Little Light
Living the Dream
Life of Sin
Old King Coal
It Ain’t All Flowers
Railroad of Sin
Just Let Go
You Can Have the Crown
Turtles All the Way Down
I’d Have to Be Crazy
Listening to the Rain / The Motivator