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Gregg Allman may have been the headliner at the Annenberg Space for Photography Saturday evening, but newcomer Sturgill Simpson made the bigger impression. The opening show in KCRW’s “Country in the City” series served as a coming-out party for the Kentucky-born, Nashville-based singer-songwriter.
His second album, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, released on his own High Top Mountain label, is the kind of country album you didn’t think they made anymore, a collection of flinty, beautifully crafted songs performed with grit and skill. It harkens back to the golden age of outlaw country, with touches of Merle Haggard, George Jones and Lefty Frizzell (he included a perfectly gimlet-eyed cover of “I Never Go Around Mirrors” in his set) thrown in for good measure). He apologized early on that touring had left his voice a little raw, but no apology was necessary. Live, Simpson and his hard-driving band are proudly unvarnished, alternating between rockers sweaty and dirty as the mines and trains that run the “Railroad of Sin,” and mournful and tender as the murder ballad “Medicine Springs.” Simpson sings them with a baritone drawl reminiscent of Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson. But the real revelation was guitarist Laur Joamets.
That’s not a misprint. As hard it might be to believe that someone with that name could play country music, the Estonian guitarist’s playing displayed an impressive fluency, deftly mixing Nashville twang, Bakersfield growl, and speedy bluegrass runs. With the solid rhythm section of Miles Miller and Kevin Black, the 45-minute set’s energy never flagged. They return to L.A. September 11. Don’t miss them.
If the title of Simpson’s album nods towards Ray Charles’ classic 1962 album, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, Gregg Allman’s set leaned toward the sophisticated R&B of Charles and Bobby Blue Bland, with mixed results.
Even after his health problems (which led to a liver transplant in 2010), the 66-year-old Allman looked good. He lost some weight, but his voice retains the heft and passion of his prime. But he’s backed by an eight-piece band that often feels like it’s at odds with his strengths.
Augmented by a three-piece horn section and percussionist, it’s a band built in the style of classic soul revues. But too often, the results are, at best, academic, at worst, cluttered and dull. After opening with a simmering “Statesboro Blues,” they turned his 1989 solo track “She’s No Angel” and the Allmans’ “Don’t Keep Me Wondering” into the kind of enervated adult R&B of Steve Winwood or Phil Collins.
It’s certainly more soulful than the music either of them has served up lately, but it’s dearly lacking in fire or inspiration. Guitarist and musical director Scott Sharrard probably has the most thankless job in music: just about every solo he plays will be compared to either Duane Allman, Dickey Betts or Warren Haynes. He’s a fine player, but nothing he does will make anyone forget them. That’s the problem: the entire band is made up of fine musicians with little personality. The 15-minute James Brown medley they performed mid-set to give Allman a breather pointed up a bigger problem. They simply aren’t an especially good fit for Allman’s moody blues.
And the best music came when they did the least. A cover of “I Found a Love,” Wilson Pickett’s early hit with the Falcons, was a grand vocal showcase for Allman and Sharrard‘s harmonies; “Ain’t Wasting No More Time” pulsed with bluesy ache; and “Stormy Monday” included Allman’s most impressive work on his Hammond B3, as well as a solo from Sharrard paying tribute to the sharp, stringy tone of the song’s composer, T-Bone Walker. And “Love Like Kerosene,” the set’s sole new tune, had the rollicking drive of the best Chicago blues.
But “Whipping Post” was, for some reason, turned into a shuffle. It was a move that so undermined the song that it took most of crowd until the chorus to recognize it. Unless it was Allman’s way of discouraging the calls for the song that have studded concerts since the ‘70s (although this was probably the only night it could be yelled unironically), you have to wonder why he did it. “One Way Out,” another Allman Brothers chestnut, fared better under the Caribbean onslaught, but you still had to wonder why he bothered. A good deal of the crowd had already made their way for the exits.
They should return, for this short series is a welcome addition to the summer’s free, outdoor concert schedule. It’s been smartly programmed, pairing a well-known act with a lesser-known but worthy opener (future shows include Shelby Lynne with Jamestown Revival, and Wynonna Judd and Nikki Lane). And the Annenberg’ Space’s fine photography exhibit, Country: Portraits of an American Sound, is definitely worth checking out while you’re there.
Tickets for “Country in the City” is free with an advance RSVP.
Sitting Here Without You
Water in a Well
Long White Line
Life of Sin
Living the Dream
I Never Go Around Mirrors (Lefty Frizzell cover)
Railroad of Sin
She’s No Angel
Don’t Keep Me Wondering
Ain’t Wasting No More Time
I Found a Love (Wilson Pickett cover)
Stormy Monday (T-Bone Walker cover)
Give Me Back My Bullets
Black Hearted Woman/Hot Lanta (James Brown medley)
Love Like Kerosene
One Way Out
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