Part of the way through his performance last night at record store Rough Trade in Brooklyn, Sturgill Simpson addressed any anxiety fans might be harboring about his new album. “Anybody that’s disappointed, I’m really sorry,” he noted during a rare bit of between-song banter. But not too sorry: “And tough shit,” he added.
Simpson released his third full-length, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, last week, and he played it front to back for a small crowd on short notice (the show was announced suddenly last week). The album is a work of repositioning, a step away from the hard-bitten country traditionalism that earned his first two records so many accolades. For all of Sailor’s Guide’s progressive moves (a horn section, a Nirvana cover) however, it’s a bit of safe step: recording an album of vintage-sounding soul is a consistently popular move across genres, as benign as releasing a collection of jazz standards. But that doesn’t make the LP any less thrilling.
Simpson’s band has frequently shown an affinity for groove at live performances in the last few years, and his voice, which comes at you like buckshot from the mouth of a shotgun, is naturally suited to the surges of sentiment that characterize Southern soul. The band’s elasticity powers A Sailor’s Guide to Earth even when its songs veer toward the soppy or preachy — this is a record, after all, that open with the line, “hello my son, welcome to earth.”
It’s no surprise that Simpson would embrace R&B’s more eruptive wing. He has always had a looser definition of country than those who commend him solely for his revivalist instincts. His allegiance is to the early Seventies, a remarkably open time in the country’s history when singers like Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson openly flirted with funk textures. Today’s country is similarly omnivorous, and A Sailor’s Guide to Earth actually places Simpson closer to his genre’s mainstream. You can find Southern soul’s influence in the live show of Jennifer Nettles, on Jay Joyce-produced records from Little Big Town and Brothers Osborne and even in the work of gruffer singers like Toby Keith and Eric Church.
At Rough Trade, Simpson had an updated band to go with his new sound — the same group that backed him earlier this week on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert. He still has his trusty Estonian guitarist, Laur Joamets, by his side, but he has now added a horn section: one trumpet, one trombone and one saxophone. Simpson seemed excited by the presence of the brass; before he started to sing, he often cocked his head to one side and absorbed the sound around him. The horns were well-received by the crowd as well — even a sax solo, which lives in danger of caricature, drew excited whoops.
Simpson assumes a different role as a frontman when performing Sailor’s Guide. Touring in support of his last two records, he rarely stepped on stage without an instrument. But now, he plays the much tougher part of the soul man, eye to eye with the audience and sometimes without a guitar as buffer. He deflected this attention by moving from side to side — there isn’t much depth on the Rough Trade stage anyway — and focusing either on his keyboard player, Bobby Emmett, on one flank, or his drummer, Miles Miller, on the other.
When Simpson strapped on his guitar after the first two numbers, he took command, and by “Sea Stories,” the album’s fourth track, the band was churning at maximum strength. During lead single “Brace for Impact (Live a Little),” Joamets and Emmett poked around happily in the space cleared by the tree-trunk-sized bassline, and Simpson charged repeatedly at Miller before backing up and repeating the motion, leading with his bobbing head, clobbering his guitar and goading the tempo forward.
The set ended as the album does, with “Call to Arms”; onstage, the searing horns and a savage yowl from Simpson pushed the song toward garage rock at its most abrasive — the Sonics playing “Louie Louie” in 1966. The relentless tempo also brought to mind the bluegrass-inflected, brakes-off portions of previous shows. In the past, this is where Simpson and his band would take flight. Here, however, when the album ended, so did the soul revue.