in performance: sturgill simpson/tyler childers

Sturgill Simpson, left, and Tyler Childers played separate sets before a sold out crowd of 16,000 at Rupp Arena on Friday evening. Photos by Estill Robinson.

The significance of their Friday evening at Rupp Arena was not lost on Sturgill Simpson and Tyler Childers. Before a sold out crowd of nearly 16,000, the two Eastern Kentucky born country-and-way-more stylists devoted much of what little stage time they allotted for talking to the occasion at hand – namely, reactions to their mutual debut at the grand poobah of Lexington venues.

“I’ve been waiting my whole life for this,” Simpson remarked before his immensely electric two-hour set got underway. Actually, he dutifully pinned an expletive at the end of that quote, but you get the gist of the excitement level. Simpson commented later, in the middle of a show opening segment build around all 10 songs from his recent, rock/synth-infused album “Sound & Fury,” that Lexington was where he learned to play music, learned to lead a band and met his wife.

That was about it for the chat. Fronting a four-member band with himself handling all guitar duties and, as a result, the bulk of the set’s instrumental soloing, Simpson was out to further deconstruct an image he has seemingly despised – that of country outlaw. The collective wrecking ball to that reputation was “Sound & Fury,” a song cycle of restless narratives that more than once addressed the folly of stardom and its warped influence on personal freedom.

Thematically, the angst hit the boiling point with “Mercury in Retrograde,” an unflinching snapshot of pop star intrusion (“They all just come on in, asking me what all my songs mean, wonderin’ if they’re all about them”). But it was the sonic charge of “Sound & Fury” that packed a far greater wallop.

Throughout, the new music balanced aggressive, though occasionally static, guitar grooves with wails of analog synthesizer, giving this segment of the show a sound that was simultaneously modern and retro. The one country element that couldn’t displaced, though, were Simpson’s vocals. It was easy to escape expectations and cut loose on guitar during the predominantly instrumental show opener “Ronin.” But as soon as the singing ignited “Remember to Breathe” and “Sing Along,” that deep, unalterable country tenor reawakened.

The result? Music that sounded like a cross between T. Rex and Kraftwerk with Waylon Jennings as frontman. Crazily enough, the meshing worked. The rest of Simpson’s show was devoted mostly to rocked up, de-brass-ified works from 2016’s “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth” that presented a modestly sleeker level of dynamics than the “Sound & Fury” material. A case in point: the way a lengthy, jagged guitar jam during “Brace for Impact” bled into the cooler, soul-savvy waters of Simpson’s take on When in Rome’s “The Promise.”

Childers seemed vastly more relaxed with the Rupp crowd but no less enchanted by the turnout, especially since the Lawrence County native was still playing club shows in Lexington as recently as two years ago.

His spoken remarks, all of which came after an industrious and inviting 75-minute set, referenced the bars and venues “within walking distance, well, stumbling distance” of Rupp, with Al’s Bar receiving the only specific shout out.

Where Simpson’s show seemed to purposely sideswipe expectations, Childers’ set welcomed them openly. To set the mood, the songsmith used one of his warmest and most popular compositions, “All Your’n,” adorned by vocals that recalled the similarly emotive and unadorned singing of Roger McGuinn on the Byrds’ final records, to open the evening. From there, the repertoire shifted between material from his two breakthrough albums, 2017’s “Purgatory” and 2019’s “Country Squire” (recordings co-produced by Simpson).

From the former came an accelerated reading of “I Swear (to God)” that solidified Childers’ bond with the audience through playful call-and-response verses as well as the instrumental might of Morehead multi-instrumentalist Jesse Wells (here on fiddle), an ace-in-the-hole performer all evening long. From the latter came the vastly darker “House Fire,” which was introduced by a session of round-robin band solos before Childers took the wheel for some seriously chilly storytelling.

There were several delights, though, that dodged the two albums, including a neo-funk informed “Trudy” (a 1970 Charlie Daniels chestnut that has been part of Childers’ shows for years) and “Tulsa Turnaround” (a 1971 relic first cut by Kenny Rogers and the First Edition sporting a backbeat-savvy backdrop that tossed the set onto slightly more psychedelic turf).

But the highlight was saved for last. With his band dismissed for the evening, Childers closed with a solo acoustic reading of “Nose on the Grindstone,” another longtime concert staple he has yet to put on a record. It’s a sobering saga of a coal miner’s son being taught the dangers of rural poverty and the consciousness required to navigate – and eventually escape – them.

“Keep in mind that a man’s just as good as his word,” Childers sang with stark solemnity.” “It takes twice as long to build bridges you burn.”

Wise words, indeed, to close a rich Kentucky homecoming.

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