Sturgill Simpson @ Theatre Corona - August 4, 2016

Presented by Greenland and Evenko

The first time the name Sturgill Simpson crossed my radar was when the Good Doctor Stephen Weeds began championing him as the new honky tonk hero, and if there is one sure bet I've learned over the years it's that when the Good Doctor starts preaching about some new artist, it's best that you take the time and have a listen. Once again he was bang on and I was hooked immediately.

With his feet firmly rooted in the American country music tradition, Simpson also mixes in psychedelia and soul when the songs call for it, and makes no apologies for it. Simpson's music is country music, he just refuses to play it on someone else's terms. This rebellious attitude puts him in line with country legends from Hank Williams to Willie Nelson to Steve Earle, and has been winning him fans from all walks of life. So when it was announced that Simpson would be making his Montreal debut at Theatre Corona, it instantly became a date to be circled on the calendar.

With the floor already full and a buzz of energy building, Simpson strolled onto the stage and wasted no time tapping into it. Dressed in the working man uniform of leather boots, jeans and a denim shirt, Simpson slipped his acoustic guitar over shoulder while the bass player began to warm up the room with a head bobbing walking bass line. Backed by a seven piece band that included a three piece horn section from New Orleans, Simpson opened with a foot stomping version of "Sitting Here Without You", followed quickly by the slow burning "Water in a Well", thus setting the pattern for the next two hours, weaving effortlessly between full on honky tonk rave-ups and heartbreaking country ballads.

After a couple more songs and firmly establishing control of the room, Simpson stepped to the mic and acknowledged the crowd for the first time before stating in his thick Kentucky drawl, "I'd like to play some bluegrass now," and once again showed how you can be both honest to the tradition and yet have the freedom to take the music to other places. "Railroad of Sin" kicked off with the dueling acoustic and electric guitars playing at a breakneck speed that whipped the band in a frenzy, and ended with the horns section sounding like the choir had gone mad and the organist playing as if the church was on fire.

Culling the setlist for the first half of the show from his first two albums, High Top Mountain (2013) and Metamodern Sounds in Country Music (2014), Simpson kept the ebb and flow of the show going at a tight pace until he was forced to stop momentarily to tune his guitar. During the break in the music he looked up to the half empty balcony and smiled, "We'll get 'em next time," before jumping right back in with the hillbilly troubadour anthem "Life of Sin".

To bring the first half of the night to a close, Simpson chose to slip in a countrified cover of the William Bell soul classic "You Don't Miss Your Water", which proved to be the perfect transition as the second half of the show was to be his latest album, A Sailor's Guide to Earth, in its entirety. While that album, which blends the Grand Ol' Opry and a Stax Records soul revue, is a bonafide masterpiece from start to finish, live there were some definite standout moments. "Keep In Between The Lines", a song written as fatherly advice for his infant son went straight to the part of my heart where my two kids reside, his haunting take of Nirvana's "In Bloom" that perfectly tapped into the sadness of Kurt Cobain's lyrics, and the rocking "Brace For Impact (Live A Little)", the first song that saw Simpson put down his acoustic guitar for an electric one, were all highlights for this old man.

The show ended with "Call to Arms", which when I first heard it I knew would be a beast of a song live, and I was not wrong. The song is Simpson's venomous attack of the warmonger politicians who send off America's "sons and daughters off to die for some war", and as a former sailor in the US Navy he growls angrily out of his own experiences and as a warning for others. When the growling was done, Simpson locked in with the band into a swirling hard groove that they let build up until it boiled over, putting a final exclamation point on a night that left all in attendance ecstatic and clamoring for more.

In the week leading up to the show I had tried to explain to anyone who would listen that I believed this was a show they did not want to miss. After witnessing it I know that was right and then some. If you did miss it, maybe Sturgill will get you next time.


--Prince Palu hosts The Go-Go Radio Magic Show with Oncle Ian, every Friday night at 6PM. Tune in, turn on, FREAK OUT! Only on CJLO.