The Fine Line Music Café in Minneapolis maxes out at 750 people and it was filled to capacity last night for the Sturgill Simpson show. It’s a simple venue with brick walls and few quirks. There are a dozen (or so) guitars adorning the walls as you walk in—I think one of them was autographed by Adam Levine. There’s a bar to the left that spans the entire lower level, a few round pillars in the back that keep the balcony in place and an open floor with old, beat up white tape that creates a perimeter for bodies and a walk way to the bathroom. It’s a fine place to see a show. Nothing more, nothing less.
The opening act, Lucette, apologized for being the Paul Simon to Sturgill’s Led Zeppelin and though she was correct, she wasn’t bad. But she wasn’t Sturgill—nobody is. After Lucette exited stage left we waited for about 20 minutes for—as the lyrics go—“King Turd” to take his place on “Shit Mountain.” During that time fans grabbed a beer or two, jostled for position within the white tape, and there were a few indistinguishable songs playing just loud enough to hear above the crowd noise. Then, out of nowhere, this Skrillex-esque (think “Reptile’s Theme” from Mortal Kombat) song started blasting through the speakers and Sturgill took the stage. He and a trio of plaid clad band mates got settled in place, Stugill thanked all of us for coming, and then he owned us for the next 90 minutes.
Sturgill Simpson looks like my parent’s neighbor kid, Mike Schneider. Last night he was wearing a grey button up shirt, his hair was short and his face was cleanly shaven minus the shadow of a goatee. His look is unassuming and his voice is every bit as good live as it is on his albums. Allow me to beat a dead horse: in case you haven’t heard him sing, some people think he sounds like Waylon Jennings. And, yes, that’s true. But he sounds a little bit like Waylon and a lot like Sturgill Simpson. He played an acoustic guitar all night and he played it with ease. The Martin had new strings and the scars to prove he plays the thing rough and often. To the left, playing electric guitar, was Laur Joamets—a guy who I’m pretty sure was born with a guitar in his hands. Watching Laur play was like watching Einstein do simple math or the Betty Crocker crack an egg. I’m not Eddie Van Halen but I’ve played Guitar Hero and what he was doing last night was not easy. Dude was in cruise control going about 180 MPH on the fret board only glancing down occasionally at his Fender Telecaster to make sure it was still there. Sturgill and Laur were the stars but the rest of the band played well too. The drummer kept time and provided backing vocals on favorites like “Railroad of Sin” while the bass player was steady and did his best Luther Perkins impersonation on “Some Days” and “Poor Rambler.” It wasn’t fancy and there was no nonsense. They didn’t get crazy, joke around, talk politics or chat with each other during the set. They’re skilled musicians and Sturgill has gold in his vocal chords. So, they played music and he sang his ass off.
After the 90 minute set they came back out for a two-song encore. I don’t recall what the last song was but they played the hell out of it. During the finale, Sturgill circled the stage making sure everyone in the crowd was as into his song as he was. When the set ended, he lifted his guitar triumphantly, and walked off the stage pelting hands with high fives. It was akin to a baseball player who just hit a home run, rounded the bases and walked into the dugout to a throng of cheers. It was a real, triumphant, believable moment. And that’s good because country musicians should be believable—even more so when they sing songs called, “Turtles All The Way Down” and belt out lines like, “There’s a gateway in our mind that leads somewhere out there beyond this plane, where reptile aliens made of light cut you open and pull out all your pain.” Yeah, Sturgill Simpson is different. And Sturgill Simpson is awesome. And that’s why the Fine Line was filled to capacity last night.
If you’re a fan of great guitar work, original songs and outstanding vocals check him out. His next stops are in Milwaukee, Chicago, Indianapolis, Austin, Thackerville, Knoxville, and Louisville.