Sturgill Simpson sounds better at death’s door than most artists do in fine fettle. “Full disclosure,” the singer said, taking the stage clad in a plaid shirt and wielding his acoustic guitar: “We’re all sick as shit, but we’re going to give you our best anyway.”
Their best was more than twenty songs, delivered with passion, perfection, and pathos, even when, at one point mid-show, that energy flagged (“Bear with me,” Simpson requested. “I think I almost passed out.”)
Simpson’s 2014 album, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, his second, topped a lot of year-end critics’ lists — including our Pazz + Jop Poll, where it came in sixth — and as he delved into a good many of the songs on that lauded disc, it clearly captured the ears of New Yorkers of all ages and aural predilections.
Metamodern aside, he kicked off the show with a pair of tunes from his 2013 debut, High Top Mountain, “Sitting Here Without You” setting the tone of his authentic, anti–”new Nashville” country. There’s no pop-produced sheen live or on the album, but rather a bright strength to the tunes that comes from great songwriting, delivered with heartfelt simplicity — and sometimes a dash of humor — by a man who has lived the stories he sings.
The melancholy of “Water in a Well” highlighted the strength of Simpson’s secret weapon: guitarist Laur Joamets (who hails from Estonia, which is next to Latvia, Simpson informed the crowd). Joamets’s nuanced slide guitar pairs perfectly with Simpson’s strong Southern accent. (Simpson is from Kentucky, which is next to West Virginia.) The twangy, stripped-down, traditional-sounding “Long White Line,” with its sweet slide, was a winner, though it was the irresistibly speedy boot-stompers (like “Poor Rambler,” with its fast finger-picked guitar-yeehaw) that earned roars of raucous appreciation from a generous and enthusiastic Lower East Side crowd.
What’s most striking about Simpson is that his authenticity doesn’t have a hint of hipster patina: His true old-school country comes from a young-ish guy, and it’s struck a chord with fans who previously may not have been trad-country worshippers. Despite only having two albums’ worth of material, the setlist was strong, with no filler, no lulls, and a couple well-chosen covers (including When in Rome’s 1988 hit “The Promise”).
If you like “I Walk the Line,” you’ll love “A Little Light.” Fan of autobiographical storytelling? Check out the stellar “Old King Coal,” where Simpson’s powerful, confident voice relates familial tales of miners — and with apologies to Loretta Lynn, he is literally a coalminer’s (grand)son. He’s got a bluegrass bent (if not a banjo), evidenced on a great cover of the Stanley Brothers’ “Medicine Springs,” and at one point, there was even a dollop of T. Rex in a tune. He’s a versatile, likable performer, and lyrically smart, clever, and world-weary: “Well, I been spending all my money on weed ‘n’ pills/Trying to write a song that’ll pay the bills/But it ain’t came yet, so I guess I’ll have to rob a bank.”
At 36, this heretofore indie artist (he signed a deal with Atlantic Records in January) is accessible enough to have a tune in a car commercial, yet cool enough to take his place among the pantheon of the Merle Haggards and Waylons ‘n’ Willies. Let’s hope big-label money doesn’t affect Simpson’s lovingly low-budget creativity.
Overheard: – “My dick hurts” – Eric. (Subsequent to a scuffle at the bar where he was kicked in the, well, dick. The drunken perpetrator was ejected.) – “He sounds like Waylon Jennings.” – “My team has one minute left.” (Apologetically said by the girl checking her phone for the results of a game. They won.)
Random Notebook Dump: – The only time guys buy me drinks is at country shows. (Score: two Brooklyn Ales, thanks to the entrepreneur-retreat dudes from Houston. “Say that we’re nice.” OK, Travis, done.) – A “standing,” general-admission show suits Sturgill; last time at City Winery, the vibe was nowhere near this loose and fun.
Critical Bias: – As a fan of alt- and outlaw country, from Merle Haggard to Lucinda Williams, I’ve found Simpson slots right into my wheelhouse, though it’s only my second time seeing him live. But not my last. Glad I got to see him before he hits Madison Square Garden, which, given the strength of this show, seems a very real possibility in the not-so-distant future.