Words & Pics by Caroline Schwarz
I knew I was gonna really like this Todd Snider tour, because I really like the new record and of course Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. I’d never before done multiple Todd shows in a row – and how different all three of these would be! Not just in the songs played but in the whole vibe and spirit of each show. I’m left with an even deeper, abiding appreciation for Todd and his songs, and a need for more (Gruene Hall, here I come!)
Grants Pass OR 10/19/19
Grants Pass from beginning to end is a wild, folky, bluesy ride with Todd locked into the audience and vice versa. We get a little chuckle right out the gate as someone declares the well-worn but nonetheless welcome sentiment: Todd Snider Rules! From the first new song, Working On A Song, I’m taken by how these tunes from earlier this year come to life in concert. I’ve loved all of them (and been obsessed with one of them) since day-of-release listen. In concert they become deeper, grittier, and abundantly soulful; Todd sings them with vocal embellishments, growls, and guttural utterances a-plenty. He sounds like an old bluesman more than I’ve ever heard. He’s got some phlegm going on and he ain’t afraid to use it! I need to hear many of these new ones tonight.
Todd lets us know he has “some songs planned out to play but I ain’t married to em.” When someone yells, “Play A Train Song!” he lets us know he’s “gonna do what that guy said to do.” Same with a quick launch into DB Cooper – the old favorites are freshly alive and get the crowd going, as Todd encourages our help in both singing along and in shouting requests. The fine and rowdy Saturday night crowd is happy to comply. Before Devil’s Backbone Tavern Todd says, “Sounds good when y’all sing too – I been singing all week!” We also get a “help me sing” on the chorus of Easy Money, which really gets the crowd going. I’ve heard this song performed a bunch, but I think never with such down and dirty playing and emphatic storytelling prowess as tonight. It feels like hearing it for the first time, and the crowd is hooting and yelling on every dagger of a line: “By the time they hit the Motel 6 they figured they was in loooove, looove, they’s in loove!” But then, before we know it, “she never saw that fucker again!” Like a lot of songs tonight it gets a big finish and even a ‘fuck yeah!’ declaration of approval from Todd. Statistician’s Blues enjoys a similar lively rendition with lots of crowd participation, another huge finish, and a triumphant Todd yell to end it along with an aside of “Killin’ it!” I get the feeling he means himself and this audience!
He’ll tell us a couple more times that he really enjoys our singing tonight, that it’s fun, and it is – but, man, HIS singing is something else: raw and precise, with choices that seem both studied and instinctive, born of hours communing with these tunes, from the head and heart at the same time. And so is his playing! It’s this utterly unique and powerful combination of finger picking and strumming, and I’m impressed with his guitar work more than any other time I’ve seen him. He’s just pouring himself into these leads – maybe it WAS playing in that jam band that did it, as he’ll jokingly point out, even though he was only the singer! Neal Casal was a good teacher. During both Stuck On The Corner and Statistician’s Blues Todd cries out, “Oh, look out!” during his jams, and it’s a justified warning – he’s on fire!
Ascending Into Madness, introduced simply and with a fine pride as, “a song I made up with my friend, Neal Casal,” is a highlight that goes to the bone. I’ve only heard it as a full band Hard Working Americans song, and it is so incredible performed here solo tonight. Todd sings the hell out of it, conjuring emotions I didn’t even know it contained, running the spectrum from gratitude to deep sorrow. Rest in chaos, my old friend. I’m floored, from the opening chords to the last, long-held “oooooooold friend” that trails off in a loving memory.
But… the new songs. I’m not really one to yell out for a song at a show, even when the performer is asking for it, as Todd is doing earnestly all night long. Afraid of rejection, mostly. But there is an opportune moment, a lull, and I’m there in the front row and hear myself say, “You can play some new songs too, we like those” and he asks me which one I wanna hear. Like A Force Of Nature.
Once in a while a new song comes out that makes me stop in my tracks; only once, in the case of this one, has a song come out that’s made me cry the very first time I heard it. I can’t even really say why. It’s something about the mix of regret and redemption. It just struck me. There was no warming up to it, no getting familiar, no growing on me – just right there, in my face and taking up residence in my soul, immediately. So I am blessed with this opportunity to request it tonight and then, realizing he’s keyed into me and we’re having a little moment, I tell Todd quickly how I really love the song, and he says such a sweet thank you to me. Then I half-jokingly apologize that we’re all yelling shit at him. Because, even though he’s asking for it, the constant barrage of audience requests that I am now a part of is pretty intense. Todd gives a laugh from his belly and says sincerely, “I don’t mind, shit. I appreciate you coming and singing with me and listening to my songs, I appreciate you know ’em. And I got nowhere to go, I’ll play all of em. You might not like em all but I know em all by heart.” This all spoken as he’s strumming those opening chords that take me somewhere I’ve never been before. And then as if this moment and the song weren’t enough, I hear, like in a dream, Todd proffer a dedication to me – “I’m gonna play this for this nice young lady over here who asked me…” Not only a highlight of the show but of my life, it’s a raspy, smooth, ancient, nascent, everything-rolled-into-one performance. I’ll gratefully get to hear this one at each show and I’ll come to realize some new things about it; tonight I don’t realize anything, I’m just swept up and away on it, all feeling, no thinking, like a force of nature.
A few songs later I’m still reeling and Todd’s asking me what other new one I want to hear. I’ve made another plug for the newbies but, when so generously put on the spot, I draw a blank as to song names – ridiculous because I do know Cash Cabin Sessions Vol 3 inside out! I think I’m blissed out into stupidity. Or maybe I just truly don’t care and just want “one of the new ones, the one that’s on the record” or whatever I muster to stammer. He asks me patiently, “Sure, which other one?” again, and then says softly and kindly without making any fun of me, “Yeah I’ll play ya a couple of ’em.” He proceeds to play three in a row, starting with my second favorite, Just Like Overnight, hitting deep notes with care and precision. It’s got a depth of sadness to it that’s not conveyed as much on the album. It’s got this great line: “Hittin’ what you’re aiming for, forgettin’ what you miss” that’s deceptively simple with multiple meanings. Then he introduces The Ghost Of Johnny Cash, telling us the story of writing it with John Carter Cash. About how Loretta Lynn was there with her bus parked by the recording studio cabin where Johnny passed away, and how John Carter was woken up by loud music one night and looked out the window to see Loretta ‘dancing like a teenager’ in the yard (“and she’s in her 80s, you know… yeah!”). It takes on a drive, power, and rhythm enhanced from the album version, which is already really powerful. And then we get yet another new one, with a simple introduction of, “And this song… I made this up too. Ha.” Framed. Todd’s smart, fun use of language, with wryly delivered wordplay, shines on this one and is deftly complimented by clever picking and strumming.
Rose City Blues, played so nearby the city it hails, is infused with a bittersweetness and of course the Todd Snider Rules in the tunnel story, making it a nice full circle from the shout someone gave when he came out on stage tonight. “One sip too many from that ol’ loving cup, Rose City people never do grow up,” and some dude in the audience declares loudly, “Never!” Not missing a beat Todd replies, in even more emphatic agreement, “NEVER!” It’s a perfect ending.
Except that there is an even more perfect ending, after we get a special two song encore of Watering Flowers and Will The Circle Be Unbroken with Ramblin’ Jack, and Todd tells us that he won’t forget this night. As it all concludes I’m standing by the stage and I blow Todd a thank you kiss as he looks over, and with a smile he blows me one back then tosses me his guitar pick! It’s a bit of a distance so it lands a couple feet short but otherwise right on target and plenty close enough for a hoist, reach, grab and pocket. Now that’s a perfect ending!
Eureka CA 10/22/19
A few nights later at the last show of my tour run, the awesome guy who puts the shows on thumb drives for purchase each night will ask me which night was my favorite. I’ll say either Grants Pass or Eureka. I stand firmly behind this indecision. Grants Pass was so boisterously rockin; Eureka has a more mature and focused energy, an abundance of warmth and respect between Todd and the audience, and some really great rarities.
Todd professes his appreciation right away, saying he’s grateful to see so many of us here. Indeed, it’s a pretty packed show for a Tuesday night. He begins with ‘In The Beginning’ and seems warmed up from the get-go, with spot-on delivery of lines that makes this attentive audience laugh out loud several times. Todd’s in the mood to follow with some of the new tunes tonight and we next get a run of three: Ghost of Johnny Cash, Framed, and Working on a Song. Framed is the best I’ll hear it, with the audience really paying attention and cracking up at the “paparazzi and stuff” rhyme and the “rich as all fuck, is all” lines. The audience response makes Todd get into it even more and sing the lines really great as well as provide many tasteful guitar accents, alternately picking and strumming with gusto. I love it when Todd lets us know how much he loves what he does, and tonight he tells us “I been sittin up on that fuckin bus all day going, ‘Let’s do this, let’s play this shit.’ I love to play this shit.” Working On A Song gets more laughs during the introduction and the song itself, and when he gets to the part where – “It’s gone, man, let it go” – he pauses then answers with the slightest, endearing utterance of, “Nope,” half off-mic and as much to himself as us.
Todd thanks us for being so patient listening to the new songs and jokes how he hates it when he goes to see someone in concert and they play all their new shit. Truth is this audience has been digging it.
Now, though, Todd calls for requests and the crowd rises to the occasion. Rare and interesting requests are shouted and obliged, leading to at least a couple of ‘firsts’ for me. Before any songs though, in the melee of voices trying to be heard, the first request that’s responded to is someone yelling, “Take your shoes off!” Todd explains: “I can’t take my shoes off. My doctor told me last year that maybe the reason I’d been so unhealthy all these years is cuz I’ve been walking around barefoot all these years… He also said drugs. I figured I could meet him halfway.”
With our laughter and applause still reverberating, a hypnotic intro strummed on guitar (where there’s piano on the studio version) leads into the bittersweet Spoke As A Child. It is a rare treat that I’m glad caught Todd’s attention in the crowded field of songs shouted out for. How wonderfully different it is from the stellar album version of a long time ago! Gone is some of the youthful anguish, replaced with a more contemplative acceptance. It’s got a country song kind of a sweetness to it, like a song everyone can relate to. Sometimes, growing up, I think I’m getting wiser and other times, I think I’m getting old. The understated way Todd sings and plays it tonight gives it a deeper and more powerful truth. He ends it with a round of, “Hey, hey my my, rock and roll will never die, hang your hair down in your eyes, make a million dollars,” a nice hearkening back to the same, old record.
The second one Todd hears is another winner, the fabulous story song of The Devil You Know. A quick shift of energy and we’re grooving hard to this one as Todd nails the beat and wails the words, taking us on a wild ride. It’s a sit down show but some serious chair-dancing going on here! We’re into an all request run now and we get a DB Cooper followed by another deep track, Hey Hey. This is one of those ‘not like other girls’ songs; or maybe a tougher version of a Sugar Mag girl, it also reminds me of Jackie Greene’s Georgia. It’s got a great spirit and swing to it, like, you can imagine, the gal he’s singing about. I’d feel pretty accomplished if anyone ever wrote a song like this about me. Todd wraps it up with: “Oh man I haven’t played that in a long time, that’s an old one. I haven’t talked to that girl in even longer. And you know I was just thinking, when I made that up, I remember we were recording and I was in the studio and I kept thinking I was gonna make a chorus you know and then… I finally gave up and just said ‘hey, hey’ and then called it that…not sure what would make me do that…” he trails off with a whimsical little laugh.
Roman Candles takes the place of Ascending Into Madness tonight and it’s deep. Todd sings it with a bluesy, aching sadness accompanied by an urgent drive which picks up steam as it goes. It strikes me that the song has two rather distinct parts – one that is lilting and melodious that starts it out, and the heavily strummed rhythmic part you could dance to that contains the knockout line – I think therefore I am because I am or so I thought I was! Well after the song Todd says,“That’s one I came up with with my friend Neal Casal” and explains how he had the first part for a long time and that Neal “found a way over to this part,” the faster part, which he strums again for a second. So it really was two parts. Brought together by two friends. He says they had a good time working on that song.
Amid the requests Todd makes a choice of his own saying, “Here’s one of my faves…” and then laughs at himself for saying ‘faves’… “You can’t say favorite? You got no time to say favorite? Haha. I start with this one a lot because I could play it on fire, I bet.” It’s one of my faves too, I Can’t Complain. I bet I could maybe listen to it on fire. It’s a good example of how a song that gets played almost every show changes night to night, as Todd adds a cool twist on the last verse, connecting the question, “Then again on the other hand how much have you got?” with the next line, in a way I haven’t heard him do. “I got nuthin…” he answers himself, and gives a long pause before resuming the line,”… to looooose, nothing to gain…” It’s cool to notice his spontaneity night to night in subtle but meaningful choices like this. Tonight the oft played “Play A Train Song” also gets a twist, as it rolls seamlessly into a little Folsom Prison Blues. Play a traaaaaiiin song…well I hear that train a-comin’, comin’ around the bend… and then it keeps on moving back around to the conclusion of Train Song. A sweet little shout out to Johnny on this Cash Cabin tour.
The banjo’s been out all night, and was in Grants Pass too, but I guess has to be yelled for to be utilized and, handily, someone does. As Todd picks it up he cautions, “You all heard her yell, ‘Play the banjo’… so if this goes poorly…” The ensuing intro is hilarious. Todd’s explanation of this music, The Blues, includes: “They say the devil will sell you talent in the blues genre, for your soul… not a lot of other genres he’s doing that.” Worth it for the intro alone, the song itself does not disappoint; gutsy, growling, both funny and sad and full of some of Todd’s very best social commentary… and yes, bluesy as fuck. It slides into a bonus banjo song, a seamless transition from a final “I woke up this morning, and I was singing… May some Good Fortune come to you…” Nicely done.
Mr. Bojangles is another request obliged. Todd introduces it as his favorite song, and also lets us know that it’s written by the guy who introduced him to Ramblin Jack Elliott, Mr. Jerry Jeff Walker. He sings it low and wistful and with a lot of the blues still lingering in his throat.
Then I’m so grateful to hear the opening chords of Like A Force Of Nature as the last song. I love the way songs evolve from studio to concert, and I note the small but mighty change in the pluralization of the second line, so that it becomes, “Please forgive me for these fools I’ve been.” There absolutely are different types of fools that one can be; sung this way, the song nods to more than one and thereby expands as an entreaty to more than one person. A few nights later, in Livermore, at a show where Todd is as introspective as I’ve seen him, the line becomes, “Please forgive me for all of these fools I’ve been,” sung soft and sad, ending in a whisper. There’s a duality of feeling in the song that is coaxed out differently with each performance I’ve heard. Sometimes it’s got more a sense of moving on and triumph over past digressions; other times it’s caught in the sadness of regret. I recently read another fan’s thoughts on this song and she said that every time she hears it both hurts and heals a little more.
Each night when Todd brings Ramblin’ Jack out for their encore of Will The Circle Be Unbroken, both his intro and the way they sing the song together is a little different. Tonight Todd says that this has been the funnest tour he’s ever been on and how he has enjoyed traveling with Jack very, very much. Then, opposite of Grants Pass, Jack takes the lead lines and Todd echos them behind. It’s perfect, with Ramblin’ Jack’s vocals sounding wonderfully ancient and Todd as my generation alongside the world’s greatest folk singer. I’m so grateful for both of them and for the musical traditions – past, present, and future – that they embody and share.