Sturgill Simpson Brings Rebel Country (and a Whole Lot More) to White Oak Music Hall

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Sturgill Simpson
The Lawn at White Oak Music Hall
May 10, 2016

To label Sturgill Simpson strictly a country artist would be unfair. Sure, the 37-year-old singer-songwriter from Kentucky tore through a number of country tunes at his sold-out show at White Oak Music Hall on Tuesday night, but it wasn’t exactly George Strait at the Astrodome.

Simpson, clad in jeans and a black T-shirt befitting his rebel style, played a little something for everyone before a packed house on the White Oak lawn. That included a number of favorites from his new hit album A Sailor’s Guide to the Earth, such as “Breakers Road” and “Welcome to Earth (Pollywog).” He also covered Keith Whitley, Otis Redding and Nirvana.

Yeah, it was that kind of show.

Simpson, riding on the success of Sailor’s Guide, didn’t exactly arrive Tuesday night as a man on the verge of platinum-selling success. He and his seven-piece band – including players of the trombone, trumpet, saxophone and keyboard – nondescriptly took the stage around 8 p.m. while the sun was still up, played a few covers and jammed for a bit as the sun slowly dipped into the night. In fact, there were some folks early on who seemed oblivious to the fact that Simpson and his crew had even taken the stage.

But as the night went dark and the energy heated up, Simpson and his band played through Sailor’s Guide as those familiar with the new record sang along. That includes tracks such as “Sea Stories,” and, yes, a stripped-down cover of the Nirvana radio staple “In Bloom.” It was likely the first – and perhaps the last – time Houston concertgoers will be treated to a saxophone solo during a '90s grunge anthem.

Simpson is still finding his way as a major live-music presence (Sailor’s Guide is his first on a major label). He interacted more with the crowd as the night went on, and even flexed his biceps while taking a swig of water between sets (Simpson has been sober for several years), but was still somewhat reserved aside from the occasional show of gratitude, even a local pop via “thank you, Texas.”

Or perhaps he was content to let the music do the talking. Simpson is a mix of country, funk, rock and soul. Hell, the guy could lead a church choir if he so desired. It’s that effortless shift of genres that appeals to the masses, which is probably why his latest album debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard Top 200 album charts.

After 100 minutes of a show that was a cross between a Waylon Jennings/Keith Whitley double bill and a My Morning Jacket jam session, Simpson and crew faded backstage for the night. An encore, which was expected, did not come to pass. Not that one was necessary. Simpson, a man of few words, had said all he needed to say.

Personal Bias: Yeah, I marked out for Simpson’s cover of “In Bloom.” What can I say – I’m a product of ’90s rock radio. Also, kudos to Simpson’s trumpet player, who eerily resembled comedian T.J. Miller, of Deadpool and Silicon Valley fame.

The Crowd: Props to Houston for selling out the show well in advance. Those who chose to buy a ticket and talk throughout the show – many of whom did so with their backs to the stage? Yeah, not so much. Also, while I get that Tuesday night is a work night, filing out at 9 p.m. – while the show was just beginning to heat up – isn’t exactly going to help Houston steal Austin’s title as “live music capital of the world.”

Overheard in the Crowd: “You’re not going to win a title with Howard and Harden,” said the guy in the Rockets shirt, who had apparently watched the first round of the NBA playoffs. Also, shout-out to the drunk dude who literally danced throughout the show while a friend helped keep him upright. That’s dedication on both ends.

Random Notebook Dump: This marked my first visit to White Oak Music Hall, so I didn’t really know what to expect. But props to those who kept the traffic moving, particularly for a headliner who went on earlier than is typical. The parking situation was manageable ($10 to park a mere five-minute walk from the venue), the beer lines moved quickly and the portapotty lines did the same. A great first impression for Houston’s newest major music venue. 

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