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Sturgill Simpson Brings Vintage Country and Jukebox Jams

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He’s been called the savior of country music. His new album is titled “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music.”

And if you happened to catch Sturgill Simpson’s sold-out show on Thursday night at Off Broadway, you would see why.Simpson elicits the brand of country that your grandfather listened to while rebuilding the carburetor on his flat black Ford before heading to the local dive to douse a happy day in bottles of Stag. Like Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and other outlaw country superstars, there’s an undeniable type of charisma in Simpson’s songs and lyrics that even people who aren’t keen on country music would have a hard time putting this artist out to pasture too quickly — it’s that damn good. His voice is a southern Kentucky drawl that is rich and haunted, filled with angst, as though he’s about to engage in a bar fight. And he uses it to sing and fight his way out. And he wins every time.

Brian Henneman, lead singer and guitarist of alt-country pioneers the Bottle Rockets, opened strong and true, with his partner, rhythm guitarist Kip Loui. Henneman played well through his Rickenbacker, featuring a sort of Tom Petty, bluesy rock, primarily focused on 1, 4, 5 and 12-bar blues progressions that elicited yelps and howls from the packed crowd (myself included).

The Dock Ellis Band took the stage shortly after, with their timeless and increasingly infectious live act of honky tonk western and classic country. The only question I kept asking myself was where is the mechanical bull? The band delivers an old-school honky tonk from a bygone era. Singer/guitarist Jesse Irwin has a goofy yet personable demeanor on stage that seems to resonate with everyone who sees their live shows. The band opened with “Drinkin’ to Forget” “Somebody Put Something in My Drink…Please,” and “Me and Tim Sullivan.”

Irwin and lead guitarist Justin Brown owned the stage as they traded chords and country licks back and forth, while the rhythm section kept the two on their toes. Seriously — this band is so funny, so full of good hooks and fun, they should be on the top of the band food chain in St. Louis. They really had me at their cover of Johnny Horton’s “Honky Tonk Man,” a swinging good time that had the whole crowd singing and dancing. This was the first time I was seeing them perform with their pianist, Tim Sullivan, who seemed like a masterful player, but who wasn’t allowed to shine as much as he probably could have. But that’s ok. The beer flowed. The band swung. It was a good night for the Dock Ellis Band, who played a strong set in front of a packed room.

Sturgill Simpson and company took the stage last. The man of the hour ripped right into “Some Days” from his 2013 album, “High Top Mountain,” The crowd packed the small venue. It was impossible to move without getting in someone’s way or making them move entirely. The opening song was followed by a cover of Willie Nelson’s “Sad Songs and Waltzes.” Afterwards, Sturgill spoke effortlessly to the large crowd, as though there were only a few people in attendance. “We’re just gonna take things slow,” he said, “’cause we have all the time in the world.” And to drive the point home, the band played “Livin the Dream” from Simpson’s newest album, singing, “I don’t have to do a god damn thing / but sit around a wait to die.” This is a rebellious, outlaw lyric that sits with the best of them, and the crowd knew every syllable.

Lead guitarist Laur Joamets, pulled double duty by playing old-time, Telecaster country in thirds and bends mixed with slow, pedal steel-style guitar, while bassist Kevin Black and drummer Miles Miller kept the rhythm in check, pulling off a monumental sound with only a modest quartet. On “Long White Line,” drummer Miller helped with back-up vocals.

With a voice so strong, so unique, Sturgill, doesn’t necessarily need to rely on harmonies. Next came “Life Aint’ Fair and The World Is Mean,” before launching into “You Can Have the Crown,” another jukebox barn-stomper that had the crowd singing along at the top of their lungs. It was so loud, in fact, you could barely hear the band. That’s the kind of demeanor you expect in a crowd. Especially one that’s witnessing the savior of country music.


Listen to Sturgill Simpson live at KDHX studios >>

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