TVD Live: Sturgill Simpson at the Birchmere, 8/19

PHOTOS: RICHIE DOWNS | There seems to be a bit of a musical civil war going on in America. The terms have been made clear, the battle lines have been drawn, and the armies have amassed.

The battle rages over country music, and the sides couldn’t be more different. On one side, you have the shallow, commercialized pop country, basically composed of love songs with an added occasional twang, or blathering about beer, trucks, or pretty girls in tight shorts. The opposing side is deep-rooted and a bit rougher around the edges. You won’t see them topping the country charts or appearing in beer commercials, and they are determined to “put the “o” back in country,” as Shooter Jennings so eloquently put it.

What you will get, in the case of someone like Sturgill Simpson, is truth. Truth about alcoholism, truth about the struggles of getting through hard times, and truth about drugs, for better or worse. Tuesday, at the Birchmere in Alexandria, VA, Sturgill shared that truth with a sold-out crowd.

I arrived just before 7 and made my way inside to the outer bar area. There were a few people milling around, but it seemed fairly quiet for a sold-out show. I realized my mistake as I entered the main hall. I was apparently late to the party as the majority of seats at the tables had been taken already. The hall was a dull roar of people  talking, laughing, eating, and drinking before the show began. I’m pretty used to most venues—clubs big and small, amphitheaters, arenas, and theaters—but the dinner theater setup of the Birchmere is one that I just can’t quite get used to. Don’t get me wrong, it is a beautiful venue, steeped with history and blessed with great acoustics, but…well, more on this later.

The evening kicked off with Baltimore native Cris Jacobs. Just one man and his guitar, Cris intricately picked his way through “The Devil or Jesse James” to start the set. As his voice rose and fell, it seemed to me that Cris would be at home on this stage right here, in a church, or busking on a street corner and you would get the same thing every time. To add to the well-travelled-soul vibe, he brought out a three-stringed cigar box guitar. Laid across his lap, he deftly worked the slide across the strings and provided percussion with the heel of his hand and a thimbled finger. Tacking on a wicked slide solo after “Samson and Delilah,” the crowd clapped along and hooted with enthusiasm.

As Sturgill Simpson and his bandmates took the stage, he took a moment to pay tribute to the legends that had graced the Birchmere stage before him. Opening up his set with “Living the Dream,” a mid-tempo song that was the perfect way to start the set, even with the sardonic message “I don’t have to do a goddamn thing except sit around and wait to die.”

Sturgill’s smooth voice, mixed with the classic but not dated feel of the band’s music, really gave you a sense of the mid-’70s, old-school Waylon Jennings-era of country with enough of Sturgill’s stamp to set it uniquely apart. The band was on point as well with a perfect rhythm section and country guitar wizardry from an unlikely place. Hailing from Estonia, guitarist Laur Joamets was flawless, whether it was the perfect honky-tonk slide or a subdued or rockin’ guitar solo, Laur handled it all with ease.

By the fourth song of the set, the pace and energy had picked up, and when drummer Miles Miller started banging out a locomotive-like rhythm, it elicited much hootin’ and hollerin’ from the crowd. Which brings me back to the venue. Again, I will say that the Birchmere is top-notch—it’s beautiful, it sounds great, and you can even come early, get a good seat, and enjoy dinner before the show. Of course, there’s the proverbial “but.” In this case, the seated venue seemed to have a missing energy during Sturgill’s performance. I couldn’t help but imagine that he would have been more at home in a dive bar or a honky-tonk.

Sturgill’s interactions with the crowd ranged from hilarious to downright charming. He remarked that “We’ll sing some that I wrote, and sing some I didn’t. It’ll be pretty easy to spot the difference.” Scattered through the set were songs by country royalty like Willie Nelson and Lefty Frizzell.

After playing his faster, full tilt hit “You Can Have the Crown,” he remarked that “Everyone has that song they wish they never wrote.” He had everyone laughing while introducing his ode to DMT, “Turtles All the Way Down,” advising the audience, “If you’re ever walkin’ around, and someone says ‘Hey man, you wanna smoke some DMT?’ Smoke that shit.” It should be noted that “Turtles…” is quite possibly the first psychedelic country song, especially with trippy imagery and a line like, “Marijuana, LSD, psilocybin, DMT, they all changed the way I see/But love’s the only thing that ever saved my life.”

He followed that up with “Life Ain’t Fair and the World is Mean,” one he refers to as a “non-existentialistic country song.” Like I said, he has a way with words. He then shared some thoughts about a low point in his life where the bottle had gotten the best of him. Long story short, a friend’s father hired him to come to Utah and work on his railroad where he got clean. The man who hired him was in attendance, and received nothing but the utmost praise from Sturgill and a standing ovation from the crowd. It doesn’t get much more authentic than that.

The war in country music will rage on as long as there are fans buying into the pop country hogwash—versus an opposing group longing for higher caliber music and a greater depth in songwriting. I believe that with artists like Sturgill Simpson on one side, the scales may have tipped a bit.”


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