The Reeperbahn in Hamburg, Germany is a raucous neon-lit block crammed full of strip clubs, sex shops and rock bars. It’s also the place The Beatles famously cut their teeth in the 1960s, long before they donned those multi-coloured military uniforms. Tonight though the strip plays host to former railroad worker Sturgill Simpson, whose latest slab of sleazy synth rock, ‘Sound & Fury’, wouldn’t sound out of place in the rather more dodgy bars dotted around the red light district.
But if you’d come here expecting saucy, stomping cuts from his fourth long player, you’d be bitterly disappointed. Instead, Sturgill shreds his way through a mammoth two and a half hour set which veers from country and blues to blistering glam rock. It’s certainly not your conventional rock show; the blues numbers spill into one another while others are peppered with lengthy jamming sections.
Even when he does finally get to ‘Sound & Fury’, it doesn’t quite go to plan as standout track ‘Sing Along’ is brutally cut short. “I always forget the words to that one,” an apologetic Simpson reasons. “I can spit out the words to thousands of bluegrass songs but I always struggle with that one. Sorry guys.”
Here’s Sturgill Simpson performing ‘Sing Along’ at Gruenspan in Hamburg pic.twitter.com/wIfOWybOFf
— Damian Jones (@damianjones1) January 26, 2020
Thankfully, it doesn’t detract from the performance. Cloaked in a ray of red light, Simpson and his band are mightily impressive – particularly charismatic keyboardist Bobby Emmett whose versatility is something else, plunging into Doors-y organ riffs, dirty fuzz keys and finger plinking slap bass.
During a cover of When In Rome’s country ballad ‘The Promise’, Emmett’s driving keys give Simpson’s vocals air to breathe. It’s here you appreciate how great a singer he really is, as he wails: “I’m sorry, but I’m just thinking of the right words to say/I know they don’t sound the way I planned them to be/But if you’ll wait around a while, I’ll make you fall for me/I promise, I promise you I will”.
But it’s the likes of ‘Mercury In Retrograde’, ‘Make Art Not Friends’ and his stunning finale of ‘Call To Arms’ and T-Rex’s ‘The Motivator’ that really excel.
Before launching into the latter, Simpson informs us of his own Reeperbahn yarn, telling us about a 2016 trip to a local bar: “I got talking to this guy who it turns out was Tony Visconti. If you don’t know who that is, he produced the likes of Bowie and T Rex. So we’re gonna play some T Rex now.”
It isn’t quite the tale of sin you might have expected, but it’s a pretty impressive WTF moment by any rocker’s standards.
Simpson’s set may not live up to everyone’s whisky swigging expectations but for the patient, it’s a masterclass in musicianship.