Sturgill Simpson @ St Pancras Old Church, London 21.02.14

Country troubadour on swaggering form live in London

Feb 21st, 2014 at St Pancras Old Church, London / By Lewie Peckham
Sturgill Simpson There is a lot the surroundings of the Old Church at St Pancras can add to a performance. Tucked away from the masses leaving or returning to the capital in the train station just five minutes away, the low lighting, candles and sparse intimacy of the rustic church provide a welcoming haven from the busy Friday night crowds invading the area for end of work drinks, letting off steam in the many bars scattered nearby.

Tonight's performance by Sturgill Simpson is a more stripped-down affair than the music contained on his Loose Music debut High Top Mountain (which was released on the label this past Monday). The lashings of pedal steel and country swagger replaced by something more redemptive as Simpson, alone onstage with only his acoustic guitar for company, keeps the audience in a reverence that fits in with the dimly lit moodiness of tonight's church-cum-venue.

Sturgill Simpson’s country & western is a million miles and dusty roadside bars away from the gloss of CMT and prime-time TV drama's perpetuation of the soft rock version of country music. His sound and songs are indebted to the Waylon’s and Hank’s and all the other road dogs who made a living travelling throughout the dive bars and highways of the US plying their trade of outlaw country and shitkicker attitude. The twang of ‘You Can Have the Crown’ and ‘Life Ain’t Fair and The World is Mean’ are given a spirit and vitality from the percussive rhythmic guitar playing and Simpson’s booming voice.

And what a voice it is. Sometimes a melodic drawl, sometimes so loud it doesn't even need the microphone placed in front of it. That big, rich southern tone capable of reducing tonight's audience to a devoted hush as he belts out heartbreakers like ‘The Well’ and the autobiographical song ‘Old King Coal’, the latter a slow ballad which Simpson sings about how the loss of the Coal Mining industry affected generations of his family and his hometown in Kentucky. Its moments like these which leave the hairs on the back of your neck permanently raised. In between his own songs, Sturgill Simpson slips in covers of Neil Diamond’s ‘Red Red Wine’ and Roy Orbison’s ‘Crying’ which are devastating in their beauty, the simplicity of Simpson’s soaring vocals over those sorrowful chords renders the whole crowd open mouthed in astonishment at the emotional weight of his take on two of popular music’s most heartfelt ballads.

Between songs the singer tells the crowd about his home, how there are literally towns full of people who all write songs and play music either semi-professionally or just occasionally because of a basic need to share music. Out of these towns or cities and the unknown storytellers which reside in them London was lucky enough to witness one of the South’s, and maybe country music’s most essential new troubadours.