Over the past year, Sturgill Simpson has gone from being a relative unknown operating on the fringes of Nashville, to not just one of the year’s biggest success stories thanks to his Meta Modern Sounds In Country Music, but potentially one of music’s biggest artists. (For the sake of discussion, let’s put the ‘country’ label down for the time being.) With multiple gigs on Letterman under his belt, an exponentially growing fan base, and a year-end feather in his cap of signing with Atlantic Records, it would seem that Simpson has arrived. That last point may give those who cling to the “outsider” image that’s been cultivated in the press (and, to a lesser extent, by Simpson himself) pause, until they consider that in 2014 the world came to him, not the other way around.
When we reported on Simpson’s also-sold-out performance at the Birchmere last year, the entire review could have been summed up as “jaw-dropping.” Even though the locale might have changed, not much else has. Yes, if you’ve seen Simpson, the setlist remains remarkably rigid. And yes, according to some, the band could use a little more “stage presence.” Though if you want to dissect that assessment, there’s nothing more thrilling these days than seeing guitarist Laur Joamets shred his way through Simpson’s songbook, so who really needs to adjust their expectations here?
The fact remains that in a few short years Sturgill Simpson has crafted a body of work -- 2011’s High Top Mountain isn’t just Meta Modern’s equal, but a fine companion piece -- that isn’t just holding up and standing out from the crowd; it’s resonating. In fact, Washington Post Pop Critic Chris Richards best captured it (no surprise here) in this tweet from Friday night’s show at the 9:30 Club:
Sure, the beginning of the set may have had a little drag to it, as the band was self-admittedly getting over a “wicked cold.” But by the time Sturgill and the band hit “Living the Dream,” the club was all hoots and hollers, with the band feeding off that enthusiasm to deliver “hits” from both of his albums -- both as entertainers, pros, and ARTISTES doing their job, and as righteous messengers of the truth.
The crowd assembled at 9:30 on Friday came to worship, and as the set blasted through a hallucinogenic “It Ain’t All Flowers” and a nostalgic “The Promise,” finally landing on “Turtles All The Way Down” -- a song that these days feels more like a rallying cry for those who fly their freak flags high than the cosmic exploration of the power of love it started out as -- they found their deliverance in the power of song.
That’s not something new, but in 2015, and more importantly, coming from an artist signed to a major label, it may be something rare. Most of all, though, it’s comforting to know that wherever Simpson’s journey down the “long white line” is going to take him, there’s a good chance it won’t stray far from the simple, honest truths that put him on that path.
All photos by Matt Condon. Click to embiggen.
(See more photos from this show/Matt's work HERE)