Sturgill Simpson’s junior album, A Sailor’s Guide To Earth, has been out just over a month. Receiving overwhelmingly positive reviews across many outlets, fans have been excited to hear the songs live. His promotion so far has included performing the album front-to-back at spots like Rough Trade in NYC and for KCRW’s popular Morning Becomes Eclectic and for late night TV spots on Conan and Colbert (including a hilarious honky tonk ode to the Waffle House).
Three weeks after the album hit store shelves, Simpson kicked off the first leg of The Sailor’s Tour in Austin, and on Saturday, May 21, he docked at the Egyptian Room at the Old National Centre in Indianapolis for his tenth show of the tour. Having been to Indianapolis a handful of times previously, his most recent being an opening spot for Old Crow Medicine Show last August, he’s performed at four different venues across town. The Egyptian Room, the second largest of the three performance spaces in the Old National Centre, is known to be a standing-room-only venue with the occasional upcharge for paid seating along the sides of the room. At Saturday’s event, even with that seating available, the crowd was on their feet for most of the two hour show.
Kicking off at 8:30 PM sharp and without an opening act to a sold-out 3000-capacity crowd, Simpson and his band, which included a three-piece horn section, rolled out “Sitting Here Without You” followed by “Water In A Well,” both from his debut album, to showcase his golden voice. Noticeably, a trombone solo adorned “Sitting Here Without You,” which was a nice way to introduce a new wrinkle to the song. A sax solo did the same during the “The Promise,” which avoided ‘80s sax cliche and instead brought a sense of desire and yearning. The horns, which are prominent on his latest self-produced album, were able to work their way in throughout the night for other new arrangements of older tracks that have been performed numerous times over the last few years as Simpson’s star has risen. He made sure to give the group their due when he stepped aside, nearly offstage, during the country-gospel “A Little Light” for an extended break.
It wasn’t long before the band dipped into their bag of covers for “When The Levee Breaks” and what sounded like Percy Sledge’s “It Tears Me Up,” although the latter was hard to confirm due to muddy sound issues that crept in occasionally early in the show. Later, he also covered the William Bell-penned “You Don’t Miss Your Water” originally on Stax (but has also been given a fantastic country cover in 1972 from Jerry Lee Lewis on the Mercury label) which married the country-meets-horns vibe blissfully.
There was plenty of time for original material as well. “Living The Dream,” from Metamodern Sounds In Country Music, drew a strong crowd response after he belted the final verse’s closing line of, “And she thinks mercy’s overrated.” The live version is filled with much more attitude than even the excellent album version. Participation also boiled over during “It Ain’t All Flowers” when he yawped “woo hoo hoo” after the first verse with the stage lights blaring. The Texas boogie that underpins the fantastic “Life Of Sin” is infectious enough to encourage a little dancing and the crowd obliged mid-set when the band played it in extended form.
Over an hour into the show, nary a track from A Sailor’s Guide had been played, and it was clear that he was saving it in full for closing the set. As had been done with early online streams of the album, the night finished with the full album being played from beginning-to-end. While the lush strings that brought such a beautiful dimension to the studio version were absent, there was still enough emotional energy in the performances to carry the weight that a love letter to your son deserves. Simpson put down his guitar and clutched only a microphone for “Welcome To Earth (Pollywog),” “Breakers Roar,” “In Bloom,” and “All Around You,” which appears to be a sign that he’s becoming even more comfortable on stage.
While Simpson still doesn’t offer much in the way of banter or song introductions at his performances, he builds rapport at his live shows through his own underrated guitar playing (seriously, this guy can play) and his tight band’s musical adeptness. As the fiery “Call To Arms” drew to a close, a rare (in these days) encoreless set wound down. For an artist still early in his career who could benefit from befriending the media, he’s not afraid to cry afoul about the “bullshit on the TV, bullshit on the radio.” Simpson exudes a working class attitude that resonates. In this decidedly messy and mean election year for both parties, maybe he’s created the best campaign slogan no one’s yet using: “Bullshit’s got to go.”
Sitting Here Without You
Water In A Well
Long White Line
When The Levee Breaks (Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe McCoy/Led Zeppelin cover)
It Tears Me Up (Percy Sledge cover)
Time After All
I’d Have To Be Crazy (Willie Nelson cover)
Life Of Sin
Living The Dream
Just Let Go
A Little Light
The Promise (When In Rome cover)
Turtles All The Way Down
It Ain’t All Flowers
You Don’t Miss Your Water (William Bell cover)
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