Outside, on the streets of Ithaca, the plants were dying and the leaves were falling. But inside, in the cozy majesty of the State Theater, country was ‘In Bloom’ as Sturgill Simpson took the stage Thursday night. Simpson and his big band (Laur Joamets on electric & slide guitar, Chuck Bartels on bass, Bobby Emmett on keyboards, Miles Miller behind the kit and on backing vocals, Scott Frock on trumpet, Brad Walker on saxophone and Jon Ramm on trombone) played over two hours in a career-spanning set. There was no opening act, there was no encore and there wasn’t an unsatisfied soul walking out the door at the finish.
Simpson’s albums famously stretch the fabric of country music, adding in threads of soul, roots, blues and psychedelic elements. Live it plays as kind of a country soul revue, with a three-piece horn section, ever-present slick guitar and a keyboardist that isn’t afraid to mix in some spacey Moog. The band was utilized to full effect throughout the set, whether covering material from his debut High Top Mountain or his breakout sophomore release, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, each of which dominated the first half of the show. The music also moved the audience to full effect, from head to toe, with head bobbers, shoulder swayers, fist pumpers, booty shakers and foot stompers. Surprisingly, the most country the band sounded all night was in a phenomenal twanged-up cover of Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks.”
It was over an hour before they played material off Simpson’s latest, A Sailor’s Guide to the Earth. After a spacey and noisy intro, the album finally broke into the set with “Welcome to Earth.” The song built in intensity with the horns bursting out into a funky groove that smoothly found it’s way into the second track on the album, “Breakers Roar.” The set continued on as they tackled the entire album front to back. Simpson played the part of band leader throughout, coaxing more guitar, quickening the rhythm or adding more horns, simply with motions of his guitar or a nod of the head, commandeering the stage and in turn the packed theater. “Keep It Between the Lines” brought the outlaw country down to New Orleans with funky horns and B3 organ. They stretched the center out to fit extended solos in from nearly everyone in the band, including an extra groovy bass and drums section. It reached a fever pitch that was fit for a show-stopping set closer, but they were just getting started. Still yet to come was their stirring soul-country cover of Nirvana’s “In Bloom,” the heavy-rocking “Brace For Impact,” with Simpson finally strapping on an electric, and the set-closing “Call to Arms” complete with a “Soulful Strut” jam and a proper off-the-rails scream-to-the-end finish.
Setlist: Living the Dream, A Little Light Within, Water in a Well > Long White Line > Call Me The Breeze (Lynyrd Skynyrd) > When the Levee Breaks (Led Zeppelin), ?, ?, The Promise, Railroad of Sin, It Ain’t All Flowers, ?, Some Days > Turtles All the Way Down, Hero, Welcome to Earth > Breakers Roar, Keep It Between the Lines, Sea Stories > In Bloom, Brace For Impact, All Around You > Oh Sarah, Call to Arms