Live Review

Sturgill Simpson at The Beacon Theater, NYC

Sturgill Simpson on September 19, 2015

Kentucky-born singer and songwriter Sturgill Simpson has won enormous critical acclaim since the 2014 release of Metamodern Sounds in Country Music.  He’s been called country music’s savior and been compared to Outlaw Country trailblazer Waylon Jennings.  When the stage lights came on and the music started at New York’s Beacon Theatre during his recent appearance there, Simpson’s no-nonsense demeanor and weathered baritone voice demanded that we stop trying to apply labels and simply listen.

Simpson’s powerhouse touring band – which includes two keyboard players and a lead guitarist –packs enough musical muscle to create a breathtaking fusion of country and rock.  Tracks from Metamodern Sounds in Country Music and Hightop Mountain took on a new life onstage.  “Railroad of Sin” got a turbo charged arrangement thanks to the fingerpicking guitar leads and high octane keyboard solos.  “You Can Have the Crown” began with a mid-tempo, bluesy groove and then blasted off into high powered country rock.  “Long White Line” morphed into an extended jam that could have given either Derek Trucks or Warren Haynes a run for their money.  While the band didn’t shy away from musical pyrotechnics, Simpson’s soul-baring vocals always took center stage.  “Old King Coal,” easily one of the most heart wrenching songs in Simpson’s repertoire, delivered even more of an emotional wallop performed live.  A reverent cover of the classic William Bell ballad “You Don’t Miss Your Water” was a showstopper. 

Is Sturgill Simpson the savior of country music?  To this listener, Simpson’s stunning performance at the Beacon suggested he’s an emerging artist whose music can’t be easily filed under a single genre label.  Simpson defies pigeonholing, and this fact alone makes him one of today’s most compelling musicians.

When I first heard Sturgill's music, I was very excited by his classic country sound on his records and some of his live videos.  I had to wait awhile to see him live because the first time he came through Phoenix after I had found out about him the show sold out very quickly.  I finally got a chance to see him in Tucson earlier this year and I ended up disappointed.  The thing I did not like about the show was his vocals.  I concluded that he's just not that great of a singer.  His vocals are more shouted than sung, and to my ears they are overly  forced and lack melodiousness and articulation.  He's not even in the same league as Merle, Waylon, Cash, etc when it comes to having a good singing voice.  He's got great taste in influences and he's a good songwriter and bandleader, but I think he's got a long way to go to approach the masters of the genre.  I really wanted to be blown away by his live show, but unfortunately I was not.