Sturgill Simpson | O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire | 15 July 2016
“This doesn’t suck,” says Sturgill Simpson, taking in the view from the Shepherd’s Bush Empire stage.
The first time he performed in London, little over two years ago, was at The Slaughtered Lamb to, at most, 120 people. Now he’s packed out a 2000-capacity theatre that, he points out, has played host to Bowie, Prince, and ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test’. If he’s at all intimidated by the venue’s pedigree or the size of the audience, the Grammy nominee doesn’t show it. Instead, he more than delivers on a promise to work extra hard to win over a bored-looking man in the front row.
Backed by a seven-piece band, Simpson initially croons, growls, and hollers through widescreen reinterpretations of his own and classic songs, uniting the worlds of classic country, soul, blues, and rock ‘n roll with his Kentucky twang. The foot-stomping honky tonk of ‘Sitting Here Without You’, the freewheeling ‘Life Of Sin’, heartbreaking ‘Voices’, and forlorn campfire ditty ‘Living The Dream’ follow the musical tradition of Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings. But so does the wandering ‘Long White Line’ and yet Simpson manages to meld the highlight from 2014’s ‘Metamodern Sounds in Country Music’ with Led Zeppelin’s ‘When The Levee Breaks’. And when he tackles Willie Nelson’s ‘I’d Have To Be Crazy’, the results are, thanks to the keys, horns, and especially his soulful vocals, more Motown than Nashville.
Similarly, his takes on Lefty Frizell’s ‘I Never Go Around Mirrors’ and William Bell’s ‘You Don’t Miss Your Water (Until Your Well Runs Dry)’ emphasise their bluesy roots, while his makeover of ‘80s synthpop ballad ‘The Promise’ gets a bonafide Earth Wind and Fire saxophone solo.
The diversity continues during the show’s final 45 minutes as Simpson and the band run through his ambitious latest album, ‘A Sailor’s Guide To Earth’, from start to finish. A song cycle penned as a sailor’s letter home to a family left behind, it explores all the music he loves. So ‘Welcome To Earth’ fuses relaxed slide guitar and piano with a brass trio working overtime. The Bill Withers-flavoured ‘Keep It Between The Lines’ features an extended back-and-forth between organ and trombone. Nirvana’s ‘In Bloom’ is totally reimagined as a tender ballad anchored by his restrained baritone. And fiery album closer ‘Call To Arms’ is the perfect finale tonight, a cutting appraisal of the modern world, culminating in a full-blown musical frenzy of stabbing trumpets, wailing guitars, and organ blasts.
As Simpson himself said earlier in the evening: “This is a long way from The Slaughtered Lamb.”