A lot has already been said about Sturgill Simpson saving country music, but his performance Sunday night at First Avenue offered a strong hint of rock 'n' roll salvation, too.
With his deep, Waylon Jennings-like baritone voice and his guitar player Laur "Little Joe" Joamets' masterful twang picking, Simpson's sold-out concert certainly had the makings of a thoroughbred country show. The Kentucky singer, 37, referred to himself as a hillbilly several times on stage and showed his true colors when he mocked the white-clothed tables on the First Ave balcony.
"We're more used to red-and-white-checked tablecloths," Simpson cracked, after already making a witty quip about the venue's late patron saint: "We're going to honor Prince tonight by not playing any Prince songs tonight."
Last seen at the Minnesota State Fair grandstand opening for Merle Haggard and Kris Kristofferson, Simpson was overdue for his First Ave debut, and he easily sold out the Minneapolis rock hub. The size, excitement and relatively mixed makeup of Sunday's audience attested to his popularity growing well beyond cultish "alt-country" fans, though he has a long way to go before he packs Target Field like the Kenny Chesneys of the world.
As he undeniably knocked it out of the park Sunday, though, Simpson seemed more interested in channeling the Willie Nelsons, Aretha Franklins, Booker T. & the MGs and Wilson Picketts of the world, just some of the many influences heard on his experimental yet personal third record, "A Sailor's Guide to Earth."
The tirelessly paced two-hour performance had a cocksure swagger and muddy-watered Southern boogie to it that roiled the crowd like a full-tilt rock show. It says something that the Nirvana cover "In Bloom" (featured on the new record) was actually one of the more sedate songs of the night.
With a new three-piece horn section in tow — which redefined his sound without actually altering his older songs' arrangements a whole lot — Simpson saved all of the new tunes until the latter half of the show but didn't waste time getting to the rockier jamming.
The third song, "Long White Line," seamlessly transformed from a straight-up, Jennings-style pickathon into a stomping blues fest with a few minutes of "When the Levee Breaks" for emphasis. A moving cover of Keith Whitley's "I Don't Go Around Mirrors" took on a full-blooded Louisiana swamp-pop vibe with the added horns. Simpson also threw in a cover of William Bell's Stax Records staple "You Don't Miss Your Water" that was closer to the real thing than to the Byrds' "Sweetheart of the Rodeo" version.
Things really got murky but marvelous when it came time for "A Sailor's Guide to Earth," delivered in its entirety as the final act. Although he claimed to be fighting a sore throat, Simpson's voice bellowed beautifully as he put down his guitar and held the mic like Ray Price in full country-crooner mode in the opening song "Welcome to Earth (Polywog)." He sounded even more operatic later on the horn-raised "All Around You."
The new songs are a series of cautionary tales and life lessons inspired by his time in the Navy and his son's birth, so it made sense playing them in order without commentary. It also made sense since the album has a steady flow that worked well bringing the live set to a rousing finale. The elegant heartbreaker "Oh Sarah" showed Simpson at his most tender before he ended with the brawny, boy-to-man closer "Call to Arms," which sounded like the Allman Brothers Band had come out of retirement.
What with the tight grooves and hard-throttled stride, Sunday's set actually could have accommodated a Prince cover without it being weird. That's just one of many royal compliments it deserves.