Sturgill Simpson Turns 40, Tears It Up At Bonnaroo

Photo by Mike Stewart

Sturgill Simpson turned 40 years old at Bonnaroo on Friday night. “If this is my mid-life crisis, it’s pretty fucking dope,” he told the crowd shortly into his set on the What Stage as the sun was going down in Manchester, Tennessee.

Wearing a black T-shirt that read “Who The Fuck Is Asking?” — an exercise in meta-merchandising, to be sure (see video below) — Simpson strode onto stage with his four-piece band and kicked into “Welcome To Earth (Pollywog),” the lead track from 2016’s A Sailor’s Guide To Earth.

The tune’s studio version boasts orchestral flourish, but Simpson’s current lineup is decidedly bare bones, and the song’s raw and stripped-down treatment gave the tune, a valentine to his first-born son, an added poignancy. Simpson, for all his shit-kicking tendencies, comes off as a pretty sentimental guy at times. Friday night’s set featured “The Promise,” the ‘80s love ballad originally done by When In Rome, and William Bell’s Stax soul classic, “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” a tune that has cropped up in his sets for the past three years.

Simpson, in many ways, is the perfect candidate to play Bonnaroo, a festival that tries to appeal to so many corners of popular music. His sound traverses so much of the American music vernacular— country, blues, bluegrass, soul, punk, psychedelia, early rock and roll — the notion of genre is rendered irrelevant.

For his Friday night set, there were no visuals or stagecraft to accompany the band, a rarity for an act on the main stage. It was as if he was trying to drive home the point that it was all about the music, as if anyone needed the reminder.

Simpson’s current band is the same retinue he’s been playing with since guitarist Laur Joamets left the group in early 2017, and features Miles Miller on drums, Chuck Bartels on bass, and Bobby Emmett, who famously toppled his organ on SNL, on keys. Many of the tunes were stretched out Friday night, allowing for extended musical interludes that gave Simpson a chance to pick and shred with unbridled ferocity, and for Emmett to cook up a Booker T.-like musical stew on the Hammond B3.

The set featured several selections from A Sailor’s Guide To Earth, along withMetamodern favorite “Turtles All The Way Down,” a tune, Simpson has said, about his past drug use, and not Stephen Hawking.

Of course, drugs are a common theme at Bonnaroo. At one point during the set, Simpson delivered a PSA, telling the crowd, “Ya’ll be safe out there, we don’t want anybody not waking up.”

The message was apropos. On Friday morning, festival attendees woke up to the news that one man had died the night before (of unknown causes), the first death onsite at the festival in three years. There was also the report of the suicide of Anthony Bourdain, the globe-trekking celebrity chef with the rock and roll persona. A serious music lover, Bourdain’s Nashville episode for Parts Unknown in 2016 featured several prominent Music City musicians, Margo Price and Alison Mosshart among them. Bourdain’s death cast a somber cloud over the day’s proceedings, and Paramore’s Hayley Williams addressed it onstage and the creeping darkness of spirit that seems to be gripping so many. “No matter what you’re going through, I know this doesn’t make it go away, but just for one second,” she said, “let’s be present and enjoy music, and dance!”

It was a message taken to heart.


The Instagram video below was taken at Forecastle Fest, in Louisville, on July 15, 2017.


U2, Virtuosos Of Pomp, Bring The Party And The Politics To Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena

Photo by Annelise Loughead

U2 has never been one for subtlety.

During a performance of “Staring At the Sun” at Bridgestone Arena on Saturday night, a song from its 1997 album Pop, images of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville flashed on the jumbo-screen. Young men in Polo shirts brandished Tiki torches and white nationalists with “Make America Great Again” hats waved Confederate flags as Bono crooned the lyrics “Afraid of what you’ll find/ If you take a look inside.”

It was a bit much, even by U2 standards, and an awkward moment for a crowd in party mode and buzzed on Michelob Ultra tallboys.

But U2 has never been afraid of overreaching. They are a caricature of rock star grandiosity, and they’ve always been in on the joke. “This is the moment in our story when it all went to our head, or went to my head,” Bono said at one point, before breaking into “Desire” from 1988’s Rattle and Hum.

Bono revels in pomp and circumstance (this is not a criticism), and U2’s concerts play by their own set of rules. Indeed, along with Springsteen, they are one of the only successful arena rock acts left. Few bands can occupy the stadium turf with such command, and have the catalog to sufficiently carry a two-and-a-half to three- hour show. And though there were moments when the delete button should have been hit in pre-production for this tour (Bono’s “mirror monologues” as his devilish alter-ego MacPhisto were downright cringe-worthy), it was still a riveting performance.

From a sheer production standpoint, the show was an absolute marvel. Two stages flanked opposite ends of the arena, connected by a catwalk that rose and fell throughout the concert. A jumbo widescreen hung suspended over the walkway, projecting all manner of visuals and animation, complimenting the actualities onstage to great effect.

The show was heavy on material from the last two albums, Songs Of Innocence and Songs Of Experience, the fruits of a band knowing what works and what it does well. Portions of Experience were written in the wake of Brexit and the Trump ascendancy, and much of the material amounts to a pep talk and rallying cry for the politically and spiritually broken-hearted. Flashing on the screen throughout the night were hashtag buzz phrases like “end internment,” “collusion is not an illusian [is the “a” intenTonal?]” (huh?), and “poverty is sexist.” The lyrics were less heavy- handed, thankfully.

The intertextual messaging of the concert touched upon other themes, such as Ireland’s struggle for independence, Bono’s childhood and the passing of his mother, and Martin Luther King’s civil rights crusade, which of course came with a performance of “Pride (In The Name of Love).

In Nashville or anywhere else, a U2 show is major public event, and with it comes an attendant celebrity presence. Oprah Winfrey was in the house (which Bono mentioned twice), as was Al Gore, who parted the crowd near the stage pre-show as he made his way to his seat with T Bone Burnett, who, strangely enough, looked more the statesman than Gore.

Surprisingly, the new material received the most inspired treatment of the night, while the old chestnuts (“Beautiful Day,” “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “One”) came off as tired and uninspired. “American Soul” from Experience was a tight, muscular salvo and showcased a band in fine fettle. Bono’s voice is as strong as it’s been in 20 years, Larry Mullen Jr.’s drumming only gets more athletic as the years pass, and the guitar and bass combo of the Edge and Adam Clayton remains ironclad. Amid the visual spectacle and performative drama it is easy to lose sight of the truth that this set of musical relationships has always been the most remarkable aspect of a U2 performance — viewed up close and watching them work, it is astonishing that a four-on-the-outfit can wield such an imposing wall of iconic sound.