Sturgill Simpson turned 40 years old last Friday, and he celebrated the milestone in style, heading to Bonnaroo for a set on the festival’s biggest stage. Sandwiched between performances by Paramore and Muse, Simpson’s gig offered 75 minutes of raw, roadhouse country-rock, with the frontman abandoning sheet cake and other birthday traditions in favor of scorched-earth guitar shredding and extended jamming. He even delivered a characteristically quick birthday speech midway through the set, peering into the audience of sunburnt superfans and baked millennials while declaring, “My mid-life crisis is fucking dope!”
A man of relatively few words, Simpson let the music itself do most of the talking. He pulled double-duty as his band’s singer and lead guitarist, backed by a slimmed-down trio whose members – including a cooly expressionless Bobby Emmett, who played organ from behind a pair of oversized aviators – reimagined the densely layered songs from Simpson’s latest release, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, as lean, mean blasts of amplified twang.
The set peaked with an extended version of “Brace for Impact (Live a Little),” stretched to more than twice its original running time. Simpson’s Telecaster led the charge. He kicks things off with more than two minutes of pinch harmonics and roots-rock riffage before launching into the first verse. Later, he takes an extended solo for a whopping eight minutes, leading the band through rhythmic changes and dynamic shifts along the way. It’s his party, and he’ll shred if he wants to.