On Saturday night, droves arrived at the Crystal Ballroom for the triumphant Portland return of Sturgill Simpson, seemingly on a never-ending tour promoting his critically acclaimed second album Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. As updates from Friday's terror attacks in Paris streamed into the world’s collective consciousness, there was a palpable air of refusal to allow fear to negatively influence cultural events like this.
Since his last performance in Portland at the smaller Mississippi Studios, Simpson’s name has become synonymous with the new-country movement, and appearances on various late-night shows has only enhanced his draw. From hip-hop heads to secret rednecks, biker dudes to real cowboys, and everything in between, Simpson’s fan base is now beyond his control. That could be by design, given the swirling psychedelia he propagates on Metamodern; his songwriting is tailor-made to appeal to a wide audience, and, appropriately, the Crystal Ballroom show was sold out weeks in advance.
Comedian Billy Wayne Davis opened the evening. Comedians opening for loud bands is not an anomaly anymore, and Davis, a surly veteran of live stand-up and a painfully self-deprecating Southern comic, rose to the occasion. But most outside the first 20 feet or so from the stage could not hear him thanks to huge audience chatter. They missed out, as Davis’ raunchy missives on blowjobs, the similarities between Dubai and any city in Texas, and calling out homophobic tendencies from rednecks—to what was probably an audience consisting of 75 percent rednecks—was ballsy and funny as hell, to boot.
Simpson and his band emerged some 30 minutes after, illuminated in trippy lighting, looking both road-weary and poised for an impending exorcism of energy. Simpson is about as reserved-seeming a fellow you’d could meet until he gets onstage. From the first chords of the slacker-country anthem “Living the Dream,”
Simpson and his grungy looking band dialed in a raucous set of razor-sharp proportions, utilizing ambient guitar effects, vintage organs, plunky piano, and a stoney sense of nonchalance that united the audience for an hour-and-a-half set of solid, no-breaks, no-hellos rock 'n’ roll.
The absence of onstage banter meant Simpson packed in a huge amount of tunes, spanning his catalog, including a scorching “Poor Rambler” from his first record, High Top Mountain. Pacing the set were peppy tempo changes, trippy derailments into acid-washed weirdness, and bold loyalties to traditional country balladry. The result was explosive, and despite the crowd’s pleading chants for an encore, Simpson & Co. retreated knowing they’d accomplished what they came to. Music is powerful and alive and magical—and unifying—and it will take much more than last week's tragic events at the Bataclan to change that.