OAKLAND — Nashville singer-songwriter Sturgill Simpson could lead a shoegaze band if he so chooses. The crooner’s last two albums, 2014’s Grammy-nominated Metamodern Sounds In Country Music and this year’s chart-topper, A Sailor’s Guide To Earth, have stretched the confines and boundaries of country music. The new album, in particular, has gone far and wide to remind people that both country and rock stem from the blues and jazz. Perhaps that’s part of the reason why it debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Country Chart and No. 3 on the Billboard 200.
Sailor’s Guide deftly blends in rock and roll and Motown. Simpson recorded with Sharon Jones’ backing band, The Dap Kings, and used them as principal players rather than song accents.
Saturday night at the Fox Theater, on the first of two nights that ended his massive tour that began last spring, Simpson brought other elements as well. Considering how long he’d been on the road, it was no surprise that he was dialed in to the show. The only challenge was a troublesome guitar cable that wouldn’t behave.
The set consisted of two parts. The first hour was dedicated to older material, off Metamodern Sounds and 2013 debut High Top Mountain, as well as several well-placed covers. The second hour was spent on all nine tracks from Sailor’s Guide, front to back.
There were no breaks, and Simpson rarely acknowledged the sold-out crowd, other than thanking people for coming a couple of times and mentioning the aforementioned cable, which, if you can believe it, was actually missing when he first took the stage—his seven-member band already jamming—sang a few bars, noticed his couldn’t plug in the guitar, and left for four minutes until, presumably, he found someone with a cable.
Throughout the show, he spent as much time with his back to the crowd, conducting the band, as he did facing the crowd with eyes open. His lids were firmly shut in pure concentration for the majority of the rest of the time. Lack of audience interaction can be seen as a detriment, but Simpson and his band’s performance spoke for itself.
For the first hour, Simpson picked songs on the spot, and called them out to his drummer, who initiated the running order. The communication was seamless, though.
The band included a three-member brass section, including a saxophonist, trombonist and trumpeter. Like The Dap Kings on the album, these three went above and beyond accenting Simpson’s songs. Sometimes, it was possible to forget that this was a country music show. There were no hats, and no boots. With his well-worn denim shirt, pants and comfortable-looking shoes, Simpson could have belonged to a ‘90s grunge band. The brass section brought an element of rhythm and blues, big band and sometimes even jazz.
Simpson’s older material was reinvented with the addition of the horns, and his covers were also well-placed and arranged. J.J. Cale’s “Call Me the Breeze” and William Bell’s “You Don’t Miss Your Water” were terrific reimaginings, as was Nirvana’s “In Bloom,” featured on Sailor’s Guide and played during the second hour. On the latter, he turned the classic rock song into a twangy ballad, honoring Kurt Cobain’s lyrics with a soulful delivery. But the best cover of the evening was a highly effective take on When In Rome’s 1988 hit “The Promise.” With the star turns by Simpson’s organist and saxophonist. The song crescendoed like rolling waves, one peak right after the other.
On Motown-esque “Keep It Between the Lines,” off Sailor’s Guide, everyone got a chance to solo during an interlude that suddenly turned into a ‘70s prog-rock jam while Simpson delivered some common sense rules to living the good life: “Keep your eyes on the prize/ Everything will be fine/ Long as you stay in school/ Stay off the hard stuff/ And keep between the lines.” The album was written as a letter to his son, born in 2014.
Following “In Bloom,” “Brace for Impact (Live A Little)” pivoted from a more traditional country tune into a red hot rocker, a nearly four-minute break-down and guitar riffs. By the album and set-closer, “Call To Arms,” the band had left country behind, and that was obvious after Simpson’s drummer switched from traditional (underhand) grip on the sticks to overhand matched grip. The song went on for nearly 10 minutes but never once staled. The show ended with Simpson alone on the stage, twiddling knobs on his pedal board for emotional effect. Several hundred fans remained in the theater for another 10 minutes, pleading for one more song that didn’t come.