Last Saturday night, I was in Amsterdam, at the Sturgill Simpson gig at Melkweg. I am a big Simpson fan. My wife and I saw him open for Jason Isbell at the Tuscaloosa Ampitheater in Alabama in 2015. I was hooked. I am not a big country music fan, and Simpson has a country voice. I read an interview with him once where the interviewer asked him if he’d ever pondered another form of music, and he replied that with a voice like his, it was country or nothing. But in Tuscaloosa that night, he rocked out. Hard. There was a hint of country in his music, but there were loud guitars, and screeching solos. He sounded more like he’d just walked out of F.A.M.E. Studios in Muscle Shoals AL. I can’t say he blew Isbell away, because that’s simply not possible. But he was really, really impressive.
Simpson put out a new album last year, Sound and Fury, that is a loosely-based concept album, centred on a post-apocalyptic landscape and environmental degradation. It came with a manga short film that’s available on Netflix, as well as on his website. It’s all good shit, so I was super stoked for this gig in Amsterdam.
Simpson did not disappoint. He and his band played for over three hours. They played songs from throughout his catalogue, all three albums. It was a muscular sound and the interaction between him and his band was intense and it was a tight, tight sound that came from the stage, and whilst Simpson was undeniably the leader, each musician had his own sphere. They’ve been playing together from the getgo, with Chuck Bartels on bass being the newbie, having joined up in 2015. Bobby Emmett on synthesizers and Miles Miller on drums have been with Simpson since 2012. And it shows.
Me and my buddy, Chuck, both agreed this was one of the best shows we’d ever seen. I was still buzzing on the gig as I flew home on Monday. Hell, even on Tuesday, as I blasted Sound and Fury, I was still buzzing.
The show was so good that Chuck and I pondered whether we could make it to Hamburg Sunday night to see Simpson play there, a four hour drive from Amsterdam, complicated by the fact that we were both bugging out on Monday, and my flight was early in the morning. Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on your politics, middle age won out and we decided not to.
At any rate, yesterday, I was reading The Guardian and I saw a review of Simpson’s gig in London, on Tuesday night. The reviewer, Michael Hann, did not like the show. He acknowledged Simpson’s singularity and the fact he doesn’t care about trends, doesn’t care about expectations. I disagree, when I saw him, both times, Simpson clearly played to his audience, clearly cared. Hann didn’t like the swampy Southern rock sound, the guitars, the synthesizer and all that. In short, Hann didn’t like all that I loved about the gig. This left me wondering what exactly Hann was doing at a Sturgill Simpson gig? Did no one else in the office want it? Was he the one left holding the short straw? He clearly didn’t like what he saw, and, in classic English form, got pissy with Simpson’s apparent attitude.
But it also struck me just how different our reactions were, Hann’s and mine. I loved it, I loved the swampy Southern rock, the guitars, the synth, etc. I thought Simpson interacted with the crowd, was funny, and he played his arse off. He had fun, he was smiling. Maybe he wasn’t in such a good mood in London on Tuesday, but I doubt it. So, all things being equal, two music critics had two very different responses to the gig.
And what does that tell us? Music and art is subjective.