Photos by Matt Stasi
On a chilly, windy evening in Los Angeles, a city still trying to make sense of the prior week’s election results, a small town Kentucky singer was set to take the stage in front of the most politically diverse country music crowd in the nation. The 1930s, Art Deco Wiltern Theatre is located in Koreatown, and is one of the most stunning landmarks of old Los Angeles. Many live albums have been recorded there, and the staff is the friendliest in all of Southern California. But, at this peculiar time, the air was thick with uncertainty. An audience who is usually surrounded with like minds as genuine country fans, had to come to terms with being divided, but still confined together, in a sold out show for Sturgill Simpson, one of the most prolific talents of his genre today. Because Simpson is an artist’s musician, the venue was sprinkled with not only fans, but all levels of producers and talent, including local favorite Shooter Jennings, whom Simpson has credited for introducing him to Grammy award-winning producer, Dave Cobb (High Top Mountain and Metamodern Sounds).
Simpson was opening for the Zac Brown Band only two years prior, but has now sold out both nights at the Wiltern, as he wound down his tour for A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, his third solo album. He brought with him a dynamic New York duo, the London Souls to open the show, consolidating the best of ’70s fly with a healthy, Millenial dose of pissed off. Tash Neal (guitar and vocals) and Chris St. Hilaire (vocals and drums) are more in sync with one another than salt and pepper, giving them ample room to improvise and stupefy observers. Because the seats at the Wiltern have been removed and there weren’t enough bodies to absorb the reverb, they fell victim to the same unfortunate fate many opening bands do at this venue, but because I saw the same show two nights later in Bakersfield, at the Fox Theatre, I can vouch for their mature skill and prodigious live sound. Audience favorites were “Steady, Are You Ready” and their swank version of Curtis Mayfield’s “Diamond in the Back.”
By the time he and his seven-piece band hit the stage, the Wiltern was packed with a focused audience foretasting the oracular Simpson, and he did not disappoint. Miles Miller is both drummer and bandleader, but set himself to the side so that the horns shined, as they were elevated on a mini stage of their own. Brad Walker on saxophone, Scott Frock on Trumpet and Jon Ramm-Gramenz on Trombone bring a soulful, festive backdrop to Simpson’s copious lyrical intensity. Laur Joamets doubled on guitar and pedal steel while the eccentric Bobby Emmett played keys. An exuberant Chuck Bartels, from Detroit, replaced long time member Kevin Black on bass and having seen both artists live, it’s safe to say he is a perfect fit. The band had amazing synergy and seemed to be having a blast, making it easy for us to do the same.
A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is a self-produced album written by Simpson as a life-navigating narrative to his son. The work is unique to his first two solo albums and full of emotion, which Simpson easily translates in a live setting. Though he also played older, familiar songs, including “Long White Line” and “Turtles All the Way Down,” this audience seemed more fascinated by his latest creation. “In Bloom,” Simpson’s take on the Nirvana original, is the perfect example of how music lovers can find meaning in a song at one time, and then a whole new meaning twenty years later. It was the song that seemed to re-unite everyone at this particular venue, as Simpson savored an entire room of back-up singers. By mid-set, Simpson helped us all remember that we creative people first and foremost, just by singing stories of his own heart.
Usually, in Los Angeles, you can tell when a show is about to end by the overwhelming smell of the street dogs cooking, but in Simpson’s case, they must have burned through several of them as he played an abundantly long time without indulging in any sort of break. He wrapped up with “A Call to Arms,” a jovial, party melody with fat horns, a heavy beat and funky guitar lying underneath afflictive Americana poetry. Watching the entire venue dance together with like minds once again made the night magical. Seeing everyone outside after the show, smiling and enjoying street dogs together, was priceless.