Sturgill Simpson turned 40 years old at Bonnaroo on Friday night. “If this is my mid-life crisis, it’s pretty fucking dope,” he told the crowd shortly into his set on the What Stage as the sun was going down in Manchester, Tennessee.
Wearing a black T-shirt that read “Who The Fuck Is Asking?” — an exercise in meta-merchandising, to be sure (see video below) — Simpson strode onto stage with his four-piece band and kicked into “Welcome To Earth (Pollywog),” the lead track from 2016’s A Sailor’s Guide To Earth.
The tune’s studio version boasts orchestral flourish, but Simpson’s current lineup is decidedly bare bones, and the song’s raw and stripped-down treatment gave the tune, a valentine to his first-born son, an added poignancy. Simpson, for all his shit-kicking tendencies, comes off as a pretty sentimental guy at times. Friday night’s set featured “The Promise,” the ‘80s love ballad originally done by When In Rome, and William Bell’s Stax soul classic, “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” a tune that has cropped up in his sets for the past three years.
Simpson, in many ways, is the perfect candidate to play Bonnaroo, a festival that tries to appeal to so many corners of popular music. His sound traverses so much of the American music vernacular— country, blues, bluegrass, soul, punk, psychedelia, early rock and roll — the notion of genre is rendered irrelevant.
For his Friday night set, there were no visuals or stagecraft to accompany the band, a rarity for an act on the main stage. It was as if he was trying to drive home the point that it was all about the music, as if anyone needed the reminder.
Simpson’s current band is the same retinue he’s been playing with since guitarist Laur Joamets left the group in early 2017, and features Miles Miller on drums, Chuck Bartels on bass, and Bobby Emmett, who famously toppled his organ on SNL, on keys. Many of the tunes were stretched out Friday night, allowing for extended musical interludes that gave Simpson a chance to pick and shred with unbridled ferocity, and for Emmett to cook up a Booker T.-like musical stew on the Hammond B3.
The set featured several selections from A Sailor’s Guide To Earth, along with Metamodern favorite “Turtles All The Way Down,” a tune, Simpson has said, about his past drug use, and not Stephen Hawking.
Of course, drugs are a common theme at Bonnaroo. At one point during the set, Simpson delivered a PSA, telling the crowd, “Ya’ll be safe out there, we don’t want anybody waking up not waking up.”
The message was apropos. On Friday morning, festival attendees woke up to the news that one man had died the night before (of unknown causes), the first death onsite at the festival in three years. There was also the report of the suicide of Anthony Bourdain, the globe-trekking celebrity chef with the rock and roll persona. A serious music lover, Bourdain’s Nashville episode for Parts Unknown in 2016 featured several prominent Music City musicians, Margo Price and Alison Mosshart among them. Bourdain’s death cast a somber cloud over the day’s proceedings, and Paramore’s Hayley Williams addressed it onstage and the creeping darkness of spirit that seems to be gripping so many. “No matter what you’re going through, I know this doesn’t make it go away, but just for one second,” she said, “let’s be present and enjoy music, and dance!”
It was a message taken to heart.
The Instagram video below was taken at Forecastle Fest, in Louisville, on July 15, 2017.