Watching the crowd at a Sturgill Simpson show is always half the fun. It’s never the typical country music clientele. You’ll see cowboy hats and boots next to tank tops and tattoos; someone will be dipping a can of Skoal next to another fan who’s vaping an e-cigarette that smells like cherries. People don’t two-step as much as stomp their feet and nod their head and shout. The demographic spans young and old—college students, old couples and young professionals, Austinites and out-of-towners mingle together, brought together in their shared appreciation for country music’s biggest rock star.
With apologies to the late John Hughes, to cop a phrase from Ferris Bueller: “The hipsters, the rednecks, stoners, old, young, country fans, rock fans, roughnecks – they all adore him. They think he’s a righteous dude.”
Simpson’s first of two sold-out shows at ACL Live kicked off the tour for his latest album, “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth” Thursday night. Judging by the crowd’s reception to the beginning of the set, many of them had heard the album before. They’re in good company; “Guide” sold 52,000 copies in its first week and debuted at No. 1 on the rock, country and folk charts.
Simpson started out his two-hour set with an entire rendition of “Guide” and no pre-show introduction, diving right into the piano and horn-laced “Welcome to Earth (Pollywog).” The concept album is a letter to his newborn son, equal parts recalled autobiography and rumination on manhood, and Simpson allowed his music to do the talking for the first three songs before throwing the crowd a “How y’all doing, Austin?”
From that point onward, Simpson showed the most amount of crowd interaction I’ve ever seen at one of his shows, much more than his ACL Fest sets last October. He apologized for his voice, which seemed hard to understand at times: “Y’all got some hellacious allergies down here, I apologize.” He pledged to make sure that wouldn’t dilute the music, though: “I can’t really sing tonight so I’m just going to rock the piss out of you.”
And that’s exactly what he did, content to do his own thing for the entire set. If that meant playing an entire album through with little breaks, so be it. If that meant ending the set with a nearly 20-minute-long jam session with his band, so be it. If that meant performing a song that references both Japan’s party district and Nintendo 64, so be it. And if that meant adding entire horn sections to old songs, so be it. He was Ferris Bueller leading the charge into a fun two hours off, content with being himself, and the Moody Theater crowd was happy to play along.
Simpson has said in interviews that “Guide” was made for him and his son only, and he didn’t care if it anyone else liked it. He brought that devil-may-care attitude to his set Thursday night with every song, and it seemed to win over the crowd.
Most of the crowd knew the first two singles off of “Guide”— the bombastic “Brace For Impact (Live a Little)” and the almost joyful cover of Nirvana’s “In Bloom”— but they were also surprisingly well-versed in the lyrics of deeper cuts like “All Around You” and “Oh Sarah.”
Hearing the album played live gives it another dimension. That should go without saying, but with the added room for improvisation, the horn section had more time to shine on every song, much to the delight of the audience. This was best utilized on the raucous album closer “Call to Arms,” with its extended saxophone and trumpet solos at the end of the song.
Right before he played “Call to Arms,” Simpson quipped, “We got one more of these and then we can get into the stuff you guys know.” The first non-“Guide” song of the evening was “It Ain’t All Flowers,” from 2014’s “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music.” The audience was more than happy to fill in the guttural “whoohoohoo” in between each verse. From there, it was a healthy mix of cuts from “Metamodern” and his first album, “High Top Mountain.”
The only new cover song of the night was William Bell’s “You Don’t Miss Your Water (Til Your Well Runs Dry)” which Simpson hasn’t recorded for an album, but should. It would fit well alongside his covers of “The Promise,” “In Bloom” and “I’d Have to Be Crazy.”
If there was any fault with the show, the final 20 minutes felt a bit over-indulgent at times, but the crowd didn’t seem to mind.
Yelps and hollers were heard well into the jam session, which almost felt like a celebration of the beginning of the tour. And after all, Simpson made this album for himself anyway. But he needn’t worry. The people love him.
“Welcome to Earth (Pollywog)”
“Keep It Between the Lines”
“Brace for Impact (Live a Little)”
“All Around You”
“Call to Arms”
“It Ain’t All Flowers”
“Just Let Go”
“A Little Light”
“Long White Line”
“Living the Dream”
“Life of Sin”
“Turtles All the Way Down”
“You Don’t Miss Your Water (Til Your Well Runs Dry)”
“Old King Coal”
“Sitting Here Without You”/Jam session/”Some Days”/Jam session