Back in August 2015, the middle day of the Green Man Festival in Wales is experiencing yet another of its many persistent downpours, this time accompanied by the crack of lightning and the ominous rumbling of thunder. Those caught in the open scatter rapidly in all directions and the main stage area quickly empties as damp music fans huddle within the shelter of the various food stalls and bars dotted around the perimeter. They are clearly benefiting from the deluge! Seconds later, Sturgill Simpson appears on the stage amidst the Black Mountains of the Brecon Beacons and surely wonders if this was really worth the six-thousand-mile round trip, away from his home, wife and child back in Nashville.
Fast-forward sixty minutes and Simpson has completed one of the highlight shows of the entire weekend. Full of energy and bold confidence along with thrilling musical finesse provided by his accomplished band, Simpson managed to lure the crowd back to the rail in numbers and it seemed to be a significant moment towards the end of the show when the clouds parted and the sun combined deliciously with the fine Welsh drizzle to create an arc of glorious colour in celebration of what we had just witnessed. You could argue it was a few minutes too late, because Sturgill Simpson had already managed to add vast swathes of colour to a grey day. It was a festival memory to cherish and Gorilla in Manchester is very quickly going to find out if the Kentuckian will be bringing the magic again following the release of his latest album, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth.
Support this evening comes from Scottish roots outfit Daniel Meade and The Flying Mules. Arriving a little too late to see their whole set, I get the impression that the band have easily achieved their aim of warming the crowd up for the main event and they continue to do so in quicktime style for the remainder of their slot. Through an unpredictable range of genres including Bluegrass, swing and ragtime (and that is only what I manage to hear in the final three songs!) the band capture the imagination of the crowd with authentic rhythms and sincere harmonies along with thrillingly dextrous musicianship provided by Mark Ferrie on double-bass, Thomas Sutherland on drums and Lloyd Reid (a spitting image of Nathaniel Rateliff!) in particular on guitar who whips the crowd up several times with some gloriously evocative solo moments. Songs such as Please Louise capture the essence of contemporaries such as Old Crow Medicine Show and although certain songs possess a serious nature, the impression of speed and musicianship produced by this tight band from Glasgow is a joy.
Sturgill emerges as the tail-end Charlie while his magnificent band of seven take their places on the cramped stage this evening. Gorilla is not the biggest venue but it somehow manages to accommodate all eight musicians including Laur Joamets, AKA Joe, on electric & slide guitar, Chuck Bartels on bass, Bobby Emmett on keyboards and Mellotron, Miles Miller on drums and percussion, Scott Frock on trumpet, Brad Walker on saxophone and Jon Ramm on trombone. Sturgill Simpson’s latest record demonstrates an intelligent shift in direction from his well-received sophomore effort and the more traditional country ethos that developed on this record has spread its wings, radiating outwards, more confident at its core as each song claims a distinctive personal style all of its own, all built around the glorious foundations of Simpson’s incredibly affecting and authentic vocals.
I’m not going to beat around the bush – tonight’s show is an incredible, immaculate affair. From the opening strains of Sitting Here Without You until a stupendous and rip-roaring Call to Arms concludes the evening in momentous style, Sturgill and co. has the crowd in the palm of his hand. The latter is the final song off the new record and the thirty-eight year old plays the album in full following an amazing selection of songs from his first two LPs. His perfect band all have their moment in the spotlight this evening emphasising the new depths and textures of the new album; Joe produces gloriously evocative tones on guitar and the horn section in particular add a thrilling soul and Motown dimension to Simpson’s new material and all these musical elements make it difficult to decide who to actually watch during each song! All are ultimately drawn to Sturgill Simpson, who has a magnetic hold over his crowd, achieving this with an engagingly nonchalant ease.
The country genre has been revitalised recently and the sold-out crowd come from all walks of life but the opinion from the masses this evening is the same no matter who you ask. “That was insane!” screamed one fan to me, who had been unable to stop dancing all evening as the band disappeared, sadly not to return. Sturgill’s job was done and I left the venue trying to remember when I had been so consistently entertained by an artist for two hours straight.
Daniel Meade and The Flying Mules
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Review and Photos by Iain Fox | @IainFoxPhoto