by Jane Roser
I’ve lived in the DC area for a plethora of years and have witnessed it’s cultural boom over the past decade, so when Forbes listed DC as “The Coolest City In America”, in part because of its large number of diverse, high quality music venues, I wasn’t the least bit surprised.
The Birchmere is one of our most historic and niftiest music halls and many legends have graced it’s stage over the years. Emmylou Harris, Iris DeMent, Merle Haggard and Steve Earle have all played here. Country singer/songwriter Sturgill Simpson was scheduled to open for Pokey LaFarge at The Birchmere in July, but had to postpone (I believe because he was touring with the Zac Brown Band at the time) and was rescheduled to headline his very own show August 19th. Now, to put this into perspective for you, Simpson was playing tiny listening rooms in DC barely even a year ago and is now not only headlining one of the top venues in the DC area, but sold it out. Fans were pleading on Twitter for tickets, the room was packed and Simpson was on fire, so let’s dig in, shall we?
Hailing from Baltimore and the frontman for The Bridge for ten years, musician Cris Jacobs kicked things off with a fun tune about the devil and Jesse James. Jacobs has a great stage presence and strong, inciting vocals. Jacobs really shone on his guitar solos and the audience loved him. My new friends, Roland and Kasey (another thing I love about the Birchmere, the tables are communal, so you meet the coolest people with like-minded taste in music. I learn a lot at these shows), commented that he sounded a lot like Ray LaMontagne as Jacobs told the audience, “I love coming here, some great mojo on this stage, that’s for sure.”
Jacobs continued with a lovely ballad: “through the silence a song can be born”, then picked up his custom-made cigar box guitar (Roland commented that it was a 3-string guitar with what looked like a rosewood fretboard and either an oak or maple neck) and played a blues number about misery and crying (because the blues ain’t about good times and puppies), then went right into an old blues tune called “Samson And Delilah” that the Grateful Dead made popular way back when. Jacobs picked up his acoustic guitar and finished with a song off his new album Songs for Cats And Dogs called “Be My Stars” which the audience loved and applauded for enthusiastically. Jacobs is next opening for Steve Winwood on six tour dates and I highly recommend you check him out.
At this point, there’s a break for the next band to set up and the servers make a quick drive-by. Roland looked at our waitress and said, “I want to get ready for Sturgill. What do you have in a Bourbon?”
Simpson and his band walk on to hoots and hollers from the audience. “I said it last time and I’ll say it again, it’s a real honor to be on this stage. A lot of our heroes played here.”
Simpson opened with “Living The Dream” off his new album Metamodern Sounds In Country Music. Laur Joamets accompanied on electric and slide guitar wearing one of the funkiest cowboy hats I’ve seen in quite awhile.
Next up was “Some Days” from Sturgill’s debut full-length album High Top Mountain. This song has some of the best lyrics on here: “well some days you kill it and some days you just choke, some days you blast off and some days you just smoke. Well now maybe I do and maybe I don’t, everybody says they’ll be there but in the end y’all know they won’t.”
There’s also a verse about “playing the same old country songs” and the audience really went to town on that, because isn’t that sadly the state of a lot of country music today? So much of what you hear are dumbed down songs about tailgating, beer and pickup trucks. This is why artists such as Simpson are so refreshing, exciting and relevant. They write brilliant lyrics and deliver time and time again. Simpson is a classic in a modern age and is helping to lead the way in a sort of renaissance for country music.
“We’re gonna do an old Carter Stanley song for you now; he’s from this area [Stanley was from Dickenson County, VA]” Simpson played the beautiful tune “Medicine Springs”; it’s an intense song with wailing guitars and kick ass percussion.
“How about Mr. Laur on guitar? We call him Little Joe, among other things,” kids Simpson. Rounding out the band was Miles Miller on drums and Kevin Black on bass.
“Sitting Here Without You” from the first album was next and had a thrilling, energetic jam session that could only be described as holy shit good.
“We’ve been out most of this week playing with Zac Brown and it’s a great opportunity for us, but we play for only about 40 minutes and it takes us that long just to warm up,” laughs Simpson, “we’re going to play you some of my songs and some others-you can tell the difference. We’ll play some for the ladies, too; here’s one.” The band played “Water In A Well” and then, to my sheer delight, went into “Long White Line” which is a cover of a Buford Abner song and is a true, honest to God country tune. Months ago I interviewed Charlie Starr of Blackberry Smoke who was excited to tell me he’d been listening to Simpson’s new album and recognized this particular song as having been written by his great uncle, a founding member of The Swanee River Boys. Starr called Simpson up and they chatted for awhile about this song and it was just so cool to hear it live after hearing it’s history first-hand.
“Thank you very much,” said Simpson, “he also plays a pretty mean banjo, too. [referring to Joamets].”
“Poor Rambler” was next, which is a really cool tune played very, very fast.
“We love you Sturgill!” Someone shouted from my table. “We love you, too,” Simpson said, “every damn one of you.” “Here’s a Lefty Frizzell song for you. It’s been recorded or covered by just about every one of my heroes, so why not?”
Simpson came to the edge of the stage to play the opening of “Time After All”, then went into “Voices”. “How many of you watch David Letterman?” At this point someone in the audience shouted “Mountain Dew!”, a reference to an odd thing Letterman said to the band after they finished performing on his show recently. “It all went so quick, the cameras cut and we didn’t know what else to do, then he takes off his $8000 sports coat and drops it on the floor. I thought, man, that’s the most gangster thing I’ve ever seen. He walks towards me and I’m thinking, this is great, I’ll have a conversation with David Letterman, and he just says “fanfuckingtastic.” The audience loved this story and applauded like crazy.
“I said we’re gonna stretch out, so we’re gonna stretch out. I’ve been accused of sounding like this guy; I got so sick of hearing it, so I said screw it. We’re gonna start playing one of his songs, hope you dig it.” The audience burst out laughing as the opening chords were played, then Simpson blasted a Waylon Jennings tune that I think was “I’ve Been A Long Time Leaving”. It never crossed my mind before, but I can understand the comparison, although I personally lean more towards Jerry Reed and half expected “Eastbound And Down” any second followed by Sheriff Buford T. Justice chasing the Bandit across stage shouting “sonbitch!”
“Me and Joe are gonna do one for you now. I usually play this one by myself, but he just played so pretty and he came all the way from Estonia to play country music for you folks,” said Simpson while someone in the audience yelled, “nice hat!” “It is a nice hat,” Simpson noted, “when you play guitar like that you can wear anything you want on your head.”
After a beautiful love song whose title I sadly didn’t catch, the band played one of my favorite tracks off High Top Mountain called “You Can Have The Crown”, a cheeky tune that’s ridiculously catchy: “I sing ’em real pretty, I sing ’em real sad, all the people in the crowd say he ain’t that bad. They call me King Turd up here on Shit Mountain, but if you want it you can have the crown.” The audience got really into this song and sang in unison the “he ain’t that bad” line, then Simpson paused, the crowd roared and he fired off the rest of that song like a bat outta hell and it was spectacular.
“Turtles All The Way Down”, the trippy first track off Metamodern Sounds In Country Music came next and afterwards Simpson explained, “I don’t know what town I was in, but I wrote that song in the shower and I’ve spent 48 hours with journalists explaining what that song’s about and it’s a different story each time.”
“Here’s a non-existentialistic country song for you,” Simpson said to introduce another favorite tune of mine “Life Ain’t Fair And the World Is Mean.” He forgot a few words in the beginning of this song, but recovered gracefully and the audience paid it no mind since they were all passionately singing along: “You won’t hear my song on the radio, the new sound’s all the rage, but you can always find me in a smoky bar with bad sound and a dim lit stage.” I had heard Simpson’s name come up often during interviews I’ve done (Blackberry Smoke and Shovels & Rope are huge fans), but the first time I ever heard a Sturgill Simpson song was when The Morrison Brothers Band performed this tune at The Hamilton in DC and I was just blown away by the lyrics.
“Before I absolutely lost my mind and moved to Nashville to try to be a songwriter, I spent nine months in a crappy studio apartment and crawled into a bottle, I was two weeks away from going back to the Merchant Marines and a friend called me up and offered me a job in Utah,” Simpson told this heartfelt story, then added, ” his dad’s here tonight, he’s my old boss. He helped me to keep it together; that’s a fine man. I threw myself into that job, got clean and started writing again. My wife told me, you know, you don’t suck at that.” The audience chuckled, then Simpson said, “all that was to lead up to my train song, ’cause you can’t be a country singer and not write a train song.” The band kicked it into full gear with “Railroad Of Sin” and played that tune faster than the devil went down to Georgia. Simpson suddenly stopped near the end of the song and looked at Miller, they smiled and Simpson said, “false alarm son” then continued singing “but I got that throttle to ten on the railroad of sin.”
“We’re gonna do something we haven’t done in awhile,” said Simpson, “we’re gonna play a song we haven’t played since we recorded the record. Joe, feel free to go a little crazy on this one.” They played “It Ain’t All Flowers”, which is the final (not including the bonus) track off Metamodern Sounds In Country Music. Simpson has a full vocal range and it’s really great to hear him sing songs like this one.
“The Promise” was next and the room was so silent you could hear a pin drop from the audience’s attentiveness. Simpson’s voice echoed throughout the room and my tablemates were hooked on every syllable.
The final song was “The Storm” and after it ended, Simpson said a simple thank you and walked off stage. For an encore, the band returned to a standing ovation and played “Old King Coal”, then surprised the room with a stirring cover of Roy Orbison’s “Crying”. “Why not?” Simpson said after the applause had died down, “no one’s ever gonna do it like he did, so you just gotta do it.”
One final song was performed, an old Osborne Brothers song called “Listening To The Rain” and the evening ended on a glorious high note. Roland remarked, “Jesus,” and Kasey said, “I think that was the best show I’ve ever seen with you.”
There was a guy at my table who drove down from Pennsylvania for this show and the couple seated across from me flew in from San Antonio to see this performance (and flew out the next day, how’s that for dedication?) Most people I spoke to Tuesday night had first heard Simpson on Sirius Radio’s Outlaw Country station, so considering it’s now his songs that all the rage, you can always find him in a well-stocked bar with great sound and a well lit stage.