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Simpson rides the night out in style

Orpheum Theatre, Boston, October 9, 2016

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz

Sturgill Simpson came to Beantown with a deserved music reputation after three albums and a well-received, albeit quite adventurous release earlier this year, "A Sailor's Guide to Earth." He doesn't have hits per se or much of a commercial presence. His rep has been built on quality.

While the Kentuckian's first two discs were far more on the traditional country side evoking Waylon Jennings to an extent, the latest incorporates country as part of the musical potpourri with a variety of other genres, including psychedelia as well.

Not to put added pressure on Simpson, but there is a bit of a Springsteen thing going on here - not so much musically or the small town American lyrics of Springsteen.

It's more in the concept of what makes a great concert. Like Springsteen, Simpson knew a thing or two about putting a show together. Over the course of 125 minutes, he mixed covers and originals during the first half of the set, starting with his dense "It Ain't All Flowers" to Lefty Frizzell's hard-core country of "I Never Go Round Mirrors" to J.J. Cale's "The Breeze" to his take on "Long White Line" from his excellent "Metamodern Sounds in Country Music."

He tucked in perhaps his best known song, "Turtles All the Way Down" about a third of the way into the show, and frankly it was not like he trotted out his song too early.

The first two thirds of the show was from his first two discs and covers, and then it was time for "A Sailor's Guide" with its nine songs played in order. Although there's a definitive intensity to the recorded versions, that was ever more so the case live.

The release was a present of sorts from Simpson to his first-born son, starting with "Welcome to Earth (Pollywog)." Like the rest of the set, those were expecting a mere replication of the recorded versions would have been sorely disappointed. He scored with an enticing cover of Nirvana's "In Bloom."

This was definitively not a one-man affair with Simpson singing and playing mainly acoustic and sometimes electric.

Simpson's band was anchored hugely by the great guitarist Laur Joamets from Estonia on both electric and slide. Often steely in his approach, he was Simpson's ace in the hole time and again. Joamets was not a stage hog, though he could have been and deservedly so. But his fills were so stirring, serving to advance the songs. Bobby Emmett on keyboards was a standout as well, though no one really was in Joamet's league.

A three-piece horn of trombone of Jon Gramenz, sax from Brad Walker and trumpet courtesy of Scott Frock complimented the material as well. They were onstage the entire night, not just serving as window dressing for a few songs here and there. To say they provided punch to the material would be a severe understatement.

Like Springsteen, Simpson let the songs ride. That meant sometimes a musical introduction of a minute or so before his vocals kicked in. And occasionally, he literally went to the side or moved about the stage enjoying the proceedings without actually contributing to them vocally or musically. In other words, he let the band do its thing, hopping and bopping to what he was hearing. Simpson's idea was to let the songs build and then some time and again with a number of songs easily clocking in at more than six minutes. The closing super-charged "Call to Arms" was a case in point with the band firing time and again for almost 10 minutes.

About the only difficulty all night for Simpson was the clarity of his vocals. Although the instrumentation was clear throughout the night, his vocals were far from it at least near the front. While he has a tendency to sometimes slide words into each other and perhaps slur them slightly, the sound quality just wasn't all that crisp.

Simpson was not much of a talker on this evening, except for introducing the band and a number of thank yous. Yet, like Springsteen has at times, Simpson did not need to. Not was an encore (there was none). Not when he had the songs, vocal delivery and superb musicianship to carry the evening from start to its logical conclusion.

Valerie June opened with a pleasing set. Both in Tennessee, but now living in New York City, the singer may be a bit of an acquired taste vocally. She has a high-pitched quiver with the back porch type of thing going on as it was just her on banjo and a sidekick.

©Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •
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