I reckon this is Sturgill Simpson‘s fifth appearance in Glasgow in less than three years. In that time he’s grown from appearing in pubs and clubs (to small but very appreciative audiences) to become a Grammy nominated, Billboard chart topping phenomenon. Seen as the salvation of real country music (seeing off those boozy ‘Bros) with his albums High Top Mountain and Metamodern Sounds in Modern Country Music there was no doubting his credentials and his sheer talent. The philosophical bent that informed some of Metamodern Sounds shook some traditionalists but didn’t prevent the album from ranking high in the best of lists in 2014. Earlier this year Simpson unveiled A Sailor’s Guide To Earth, an adventurous epic which saw him travel further from his basic update on outlaw country, a concept album of sorts, inspired by the birth of his son, it saw Simpson add horns, strings and electronics as he pulled in soul and funk influences. A bold move for his first major label release the album has been almost universally lauded for its vision and for Simpson’s refusal to be cast in any one bag.
It was an expectant crowd therefore who turned up to see the man tonight. Reports from shows in Newcastle and Manchester on previous nights indicated that Simpson and his seven man band (guitar/pedal steel, bass, drums, keyboards and three horn players) were playing the album in full and so it was. There was some softening up beforehand as he ran through past favourites that were rearranged to take account of the horns and keys; forty minutes or so and had he left at the end of these there would have been no complaints. The opening lines of Sitting here Without You hummed like railroad tracks with a train approaching before the band battered into honky tonk heaven, the horns given space halfway in before the band got back on the tracks. Water In The Well was an early example of Simpson’s aching way with a ballad before they launched into an almighty delivery of Long White Line which started with a soulful organ groove before Laur Joamets’ wicked guitar sparked up, eventually sparring with the horns. Chugging and grooving, the song reached its logical end but the band segued expertly into an audacious rendition of When The Levee Breaks discarding any Memphis Minnie notions as they honed in on the Led Zeppelin cover, Jaumets’ casually riffing off on Jimmy Page, pretty astonishing. There was another nod to an older song on I Never Go Round Mirrors, this time with whiffs of The Tennessee Waltz woven in. Railroad of Sin and Living The Dream were powerful reminders of Simpson’s ability to deliver hi octane country rock along with his oft-mentioned recall of Waylon Jennings while tonight’s delivery of The Promise was infused with a soulful feel that brought to mind Otis Redding.
The band remained on stage and Simpson gave a short preamble to the leviathan that is A Sailor’s Guide To Earth before it rumbled into view with a thundercloud cacophony of guitar and keyboard before settling into the melody of Welcome To Earth (Pollywog). Thereafter the songs appeared in sequence, billowing and blasting with tsunamis of sound from the horns, unfortunately Simpson’s words of sage advice at times swallowed up by the clamour. Never mind, the overall effect was impressive. The brass burbled over some superb slide guitar on the pulsating Keep It Between The Lines, Bobby Emmet on keyboards coming on like Garth Hudson at times. There was a scintillating moment midway through In Bloom when pedal steel glided into a sharp horn break and the thunderous bass guitar intro (from Chuck Bartell) to Brace for Impact (Live a Little) led the band into an almighty wallow through funky Little Feat territory, guitar sinuous and sinister as the rhythm section locked into the groove. This was awesome.
There was a brief respite from this juggernaut of sound on the soulful bliss of All Around You before it grew into a wall of sound with the horns blasting away and the soul train continued with the deeply moving Oh, Sarah, Simpson approaching the romantic heights of The Promise with his vocals. The ship was berthing now as Simpson mentioned his local bagpipe player, Dougie Wilkinson before Call To Arms hove into view, a perfect closer to the night as the band ripped into it with a fury. Away from ship and sea metaphors the band played this like they were in a roadhouse on fire, the last of the honky tonks. As they blazed away Simpson grew more animated throwing shapes and pacing around the players, ducking into the wings allowing soloists to shine before winding it all up with a ferocious blast of joyous noise before an abrupt end and a sharp exit from the stage. And that was it. The crowd seemed momentarily stunned before erupting into applause. There was no encore but it would be difficult to see any way that they could have topped that.
Simpson’s Glasgow buddies, Daniel Meade & The Flying Mules were the support tonight, evidence of the man’s affinity with this dear green place (indeed a fanciful article in a local newspaper had him musing on moving over here from Nashville, if only). Playing to a home crowd The Mules were on top form playing a selection from their new album, Let Me Off At The Bottom along with several favourites from Mr. Meade’s back catalogue. Always a good bet for some infectious rock’n’roll their recent bout of touring sees them razor sharp in their delivery and there was even some dancing going on as they tore into Please Louise. There’s a Headstone Where Her Heart Used To Be, As Good As Bad Can Be and Back To Hell were real crowd pleasers while the plaintive lament of He Should have Been Mine showed that they can be tear jerking as well as barnstorming.