For those needing more proof of Sturgill Simpson’s growing crossover appeal, they merely had to witness his revved-up performance at Brooklyn’s palatial Kings Theatre – one of several stops along the country singer’s current tour in support of his latest album, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. The critically-acclaimed artist, who made his first return to Brooklyn on Saturday, October 8th, since his surprise appearance last April at the Rough Trade NYC record store and performance venue, played to a large audience in a borough that is still mostly known as a destination for indie rock than country music.
Then again, Simpson is not your typical country music artist coming out of Nashville, as evidenced by his recent and controversial remarks about the Academy of Country Music. For starters, his two-hour show at the Kings Theatre was more akin to a rock & soul revue than any country concert. A good part of that had to do with the presence of a three-piece horn section that injected some punchy Stax-like rhythm & blues, a style of music that is all over A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. With the exception of the sounds of pedal steel and Simpson’s gritty voice, the show had the feel of an energetic rock show, filled with rock guitar solos, sonic effects and forceful drumming.
Interestingly, Simpson and the band played straight through for two hours with no encore. The first part of the show was devoted mostly to songs from the singer’s previous two albums, High Top Mountain and Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. Opening with the chugging “Railroad of Sin,” Simpson set the hard-edged tone of the evening, fueled further by the equally rollicking “Life of Sin” and “Sitting Here Without You.” The more groove-oriented “Water in a Well,” meanwhile, along with “Long White Line” and “Turtles All the Way Down,” helped balance out the rowdy fare. Simpson also turned in soulful covers: “I’d Have to Be Crazy,” made famous by Willie Nelson, and When in Rome’s Eighties synthpop hit “The Promise,” the latter transformed into a heartfelt ballad.
The second half of the evening was devoted to the entirety of the conceptually-tilted A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. The audience erupted as Simpson sang the first line of the ambitious “Welcome to Earth (Pollywog),” the opening track on the record. Accentuated by the horn section, his distinctive cover of Nirvana’s “In Bloom” had more of a pronounced jazzy-soul feel, while “Keep It Between the Lines” crackled with electricity, thanks to some tasteful solos by the band. All of it led up to the driving and raucous “Call to Arms,” the final song of both the album and the evening.
Simpson’s performance was a straightforward, no-nonsense affair, hardly engaging in any banter with the audience, aside from the occasional “thank you.” Rather, he let the songs and musicianship speak for him. “Whichever way I go,” he recently told Rolling Stone about his next project, “I’m trying to learn not to second-guess myself. As long as I put art before business, I’ll just let love lead the way.” While this attitude has made Simpson somewhat of an iconoclast within the Nashville establishment, it has also endeared him to a new, and in Brooklyn, appreciative audience.