- 02 Feb 20
Simpson, Eh? Grammy-Winning Country/Soul/Rock Firebrand Bludgeons The Faithful
Here’s a conundrum for you. How do you really feel when an artist you adore goes off and makes a record you’re not crazy about? On the one hand, you have to maintain your right-on stance and say something about how you respect their artistic vision and appreciate that they’re doing their own thing, but on the other you kind of long for what made you love them in the first place. As far as I’m concerned, Sturgill Simpson made two of the best records of the last decade with the psychedelic Waylon-isms of 2014’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music and the country/soul opera – or should that be opry? – of the Grammy-winning A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. I was slightly less enamoured with last year’s scuzz-rockin’ SOUND & FURY. It’s not bad, it’s just not as good, but - see my point above - let’s respect and laud artistic freedom and all that.
Forewarned and forearmed, I wasn’t expecting much of the former in Vicar Street and, on that score at least, I wasn’t to be disappointed. Starting early – I think he came on about 8:15 – Simpson was here to work. Before he gets going, he tells a story about supporting John Prine in this very room – a good night that – and how he spotted a quote from Macbeth on the wall, the one about strutting and fretting your hour upon the stage and how life is a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing (Your family motto perchance, Carty? – Ed.). Simpson had already decided on SOUND & FURY as his title but he saw this as a sign from the universe. “We’re going to do this stupid rock record and then the country show you probably came for,” he promises as the band kick into ‘Ronin’, the guitar-heavy instrumental that opens the album.
First of all, this band is fantastic – Miles Miller on drums, big bear of a bassist Chuck Bartels, and the hard working Bobby Emmett on various keyboards that look like they’ve been salvaged from jumble sales. He’s sporting a suitable Thin Lizzy t-shirt and God bless his eyesight if he can see through those sunglasses given the lighting rig. The first hour is the album in the order it’s presented on wax and it does sound better live. Highlights include the great key change in ‘Best Clockmaker On Mars’, the odd shift with what I think is an F#M chord in ‘All Said And Done’ and the boogie-woogie piano in ‘Last Man Standing.’ There are some gripes though, it does occasionally feel like you’re getting hit over the head with another guitar solo or squelchy keyboard riff, Simpson’s voice is far too buried in the mix, and, seeing as how he spent a million bucks on putting an anime movie together to go with the album, could there not have been a few of those visuals projected on the stage rather than the constant red lights that would shame a lunchtime gig at Whelan’s? Still though, as a public service announcement kindly points out before the show, there are several exits available if you want to use them.
Once the album is out of the way – and it made me want to have another listen to it, so job done there – we get one of the night’s high points with an Otis-like reading of Willie Nelson’s ‘I’d Have To Be Crazy’, Simpson’s voice breaking through as the pace slows. ‘Oh Sarah’ and ‘Breakers Roar’ both have moments of beauty in them although the guitar again threatens to drown that voice. A run at Eric Clapton/Derek And The Dominos’ ‘Bell Bottom Blues’ offers another showcase for Simpson’s excellent guitar wrangling skills – pulling off the delicate solo here, doing a bit of chicken picking in the previous song, or riffing like he’s auditioning for ZZ Top or AC/DC almost everywhere else. I’d rather hear him do stuff like ‘The Promise’ though. Simpson was able to take this forgotten eighties hit from When In Rome (no, me neither) and make it sound like a lost Waylon Jennings doing Donnie Fritts cut on vinyl but tonight, alas, its subtleties are difficult to discern.
‘Welcome To Earth (Pollywog)’ works better, bringing out the songs inherent E-Street Shuffle-isms, and ‘It Ain’t All Flowers’ and ‘Turtles All The Way Down’ – you don’t get many country songs inspired by Stephen Hawking’s adventures – both pass muster, although Simpson isn’t afraid to extend them out beyond their natural shape with more Telecaster wrestling. The cover of William Bell’s ‘You Don’t Miss Your Water’ is pretty spectacular, including a marvellous two handed Hammond solo from Emmett, Simpson hollering out the lyric in fine fashion, but the closing ‘Call To Arms’ despite featuring welcome snatches of T. Rex’s ‘The Motivator’ and what sounded like Hendrix’s ‘Machine Gun’ - and, for all I know, more stuff too - was a bit of an endurance test.
With that, he was gone, shouting thanks and we love you and, according to Mr White to my left, something about getting his dick out in Spain, although I can’t confirm this. He also, I think, declared that if we want to see the real thing, we should go see him in America, which is a distinctly odd thing to say to an audience anywhere. Anyway, despite all that, he went down like free beer in a room that filled up as the night went on, people roaring, shouting, dancing and having a high old time, so what do I know? I just think more variation in dynamics might have been nice, but it wasn’t that kind of show. Simpson was, as always, doing his own thing.