Sturgill Simpson’s latest album, “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music,” recently went from peppering “Best of 2014” lists to creating a frenzy that has left Simpson with a tour of sold-out shows and a smattering of high expectations. Since the breakout of his sophomore effort, he has been hailed as everything from country music’s savior to the future of twang and, after his Tuesday-night performance to a sold-out crowd at Whitney Peak’s Cargo, it’s easy to see that Simpson is, indeed, different.
In a world of pseudo-country arena rock, Simpson’s songwriting is refreshing. His stage show is unpretentious and his band is stripped down. Even as the crowd seemed to bore Simpson and company at times, they still managed to deliver the set of a well-oiled touring machine. It neither raucous, nor enthralling, but it was certainly a set of great country songs played by a great country band.
Simpson’s schedule as of late has been rigorous to say the least. He and his band have played more than 30 shows and made countless radio and TV appearances since the end of January, and while it seems they may still be getting used to the whirlwind of success, they have clearly become masters of their live set. Together, they weaved in and out of songs and toyed with the tempo, often riling up the audience in the process.
“We’re still new to this; we don’t have this professionalism shit down,” Simpson drawled as he tuned his guitar before easing into “I Never Go Around Mirrors” by country legend Lefty Frizzell. Simpson’s respect for country music’s past is apparent. The twang in his voice brings Waylon Jennings to mind, and the steadfastness of his band is a throwback all its own.
Simpson’s backing band is a four-piece powerhouse, armed with the knowledge and chops to more than bolster the strength of Simpson’s songwriting and vocals. Drummer Miles Miller and bassist Kevin Black created an unwavering foundation for the rest of the group to dance on throughout with Miller even adding the occasional backing vocals. Keyboardist Jeff Crowe’s playing was reminiscent of early ’70s Rolling Stones and Allman Brothers session man Chuck Leavell, adding a little more rock and roll flare to the otherwise twangy forefront of guitarist Laur Joamets.
Hailing from the post-Soviet state of Estonia, Joamets did nothing short of putting on a clinic throughout the entire performance. Armed with a slide and a cooking shuffle beat, Joamets screamed through his solos like a modern James Burton mixed with a country-fried Sonny Landreth. His sense of rhythm within each tempo was almost as astonishing as his blistering chops. Whether tearing through the break neck pace of “Poor Rambler” or singing through ballads like “The Promise,” Joamets’ control of his tone and his sense of musicality allowed him to shine through the otherwise, underwhelming performance.
Whether it was the dizzying rise to fame, the busy touring schedule, or the “dry air” as Simpson mentioned early in the set, there was something that was inhibiting the five-piece country act. While the players were superb in the presentation of country music, the disengaged nature of the band was off putting. Sturgill Simpson and his band have a long career ahead of them and, hopefully, with experience will come a new-found excitement.