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Sturgill Simpson brings outlaw country back

Sturgill Simpson performed for a sold-out crowd at Knucklehead's Tuesday, Dec. 2, 2014. Lucette was the opener.
Sturgill Simpson performed for a sold-out crowd at Knucklehead's Tuesday, Dec. 2, 2014. Lucette was the opener. The Kansas City Star

We’ve seen the likes of Sturgill Simpson before. But it feels like it has been awhile, so his voice and his presentation are as refreshing as they are invigorating.

Much like Steve Earle and Dwight Yoakam, who preceded him decades ago, Simpson brings to the stage and the music scene a flavor and fashion of music that is entrenched in the traditions of country and that violates most of its contemporary rules.

Tuesday night, Simpson, 36, a Kentucky native, sold out Knuckleheads Saloon and delivered a show that seemed to live up to everyone’s expectations: It was loud and rowdy at times, quiet and tender at others, and it showcased a premiere songwriter who can deliver the goods live.

Simpson has released two albums independently, including this year’s “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music,” a collection of songs cast in classic-country sounds that, lyrically, explores matters far more cosmic than moonshine and heartache. Instead, Simpson delves into themes that are as transcendent and metaphysical as they are born of the heart. In “Turtles All the Way Down,” for example, the married father of a young child namechecks Buddha, the devil and Jesus Christ and rejects weed, LSD and other drugs in favor of “the only thing that’s saved my life,” which would be love.

He was backed by a three-piece band that included lead guitarist Laur Joamets, a native of Estonia, who displayed the nuances and fundamentals of traditional country but infused some of his licks with a flair that was equal parts psychedelic and classic rock. On a few songs, like “Some Days,” they veered off into instrumental jams, but none meandered or went on too long.

Simpson himself looked anti-contemporary country: no cowboy hat, no ball cap on backwards, no boots, no beard. Rather he was clean-shaven, except for his two-day chocolate-milk mustache. He wore jeans, a button-down shirt and a pair of Chuck Taylor sneakers, his way of saying country has zip to do with fashion or pretense. Instead, it’s about good songs. And he has plenty.

His audience of more than 300 was familiar with most of those songs, many of which sounded born in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson and others reacted to what was happening in Nashville by launching what was labeled outlaw country. Vocally, Simpson bears a heavy resemblance to Jennings, which deepens his retro sound.

The set list drew about equally from “Metamodern” and its predecessor, “High Top Mountain.” It also included several covers, including the Stanley Brothers’ “Medicine Springs,” Willie Nelsons’ “Sad Songs and Waltzes,” Lefty Frizzell’s “I Never Go Around Mirrors” and Simpson’s brilliant country-soul remodel of “The Promise,” a late-1980s hit by the British synth-pop duo “When In Rome.”

Throughout the show, the crowd sang along, robustly, and where there was room for it, there was some dancing, even during the ballads and waltzes. “Living the Dream” and “Life of Sin” were especially explosive.

Simpson didn’t spend too much time on chit-chat, though he did talk about sitting outside the venue, which sits along train tracks, and reminiscing about his days working for the railroad. Then he played “Railroad of Sin,” a jaunty, locomotive of a song from “Mountain.”

He closed with “I’d Have to Be Crazy,” a ballad with a heavy George Jones vibe, then “Listening to the Rain,” an Osborne Brothers tune. It’s a bluegrass song about bad weather and missing the one you love, but neither Simpson nor the crowd was feeling misery. Instead, the room was filled with dancing and rowdy joy. I’m not sure whether that signifies that outlaw is back in country music or there’s a new sheriff in town. Either is good news.

To reach Timothy Finn, call 816-234-4781 or send email to tfinn@kcstar.com. Follow the Back to Rockville blog on Twitter @kcstarrockville.

SET LIST

Sitting Here Without You; Water in a Well; Long White Line; Voices; Country Blues; Time After All; Medicine Springs; A Little Light; Living the Dream; Life of Sin; Sad Songs and Waltzes; Sometimes Wine; I Never Go Around Mirrors; Some Days; It Ain’t All Flowers; The Promise; Railroad of Sin; You Can Have the Crown; Turtles All the Way Down. Encore: I’d Have to Be Crazy; Listening to the Rain.

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