Most concerts don’t begin with an apology, but that’s exactly that Todd Snider did on February 15th in front of a sold-out crowd at Knucklehead’s Saloon in Kansas City. Snider apologized to the folks who attended the previous night’s show, another sold-out affair at Knucklehead’s, and acknowledged that he had been saving himself for Sunday night the whole time. It was an honest admission by a musician whose default pretense is one of off-the-cuff nonchalance, an affable hippie charm covering a deeply astute sense of purpose and sophistication. It’s a characteristic that translates to his words and music. Snider’s songs and stories are inviting in their seeming innocence, their commitment to the accidental, the unintended, and the serendipitous. The characters that populated his songs that night seemingly lacked ambition, such as the fast-food employee protagonist in “Can’t Complain,” or simply had the wrong type of ambition, such as mysterious plane hijacker D.B. Cooper. Commenting on ambition, Snider told the crowd both nights that he’s “never had a fucking goal” in his life.
However, it isn’t that Snider lacks goals; he merely champions the virtues and modesties of those who seek rewards that are less recognizable as “ambitious” pursuits. Snider’s characters are unremarkable in the conventional sense. They are alright guys (“Alright Guy”), authority-resistant children (“Stuck on the Corner”), or lovingly wizened barmaids (“The Ballad of the Devil’s Backbone Tavern”), characters whose seeming innocuousness belies their sneaky defiance and nuanced wisdom. Miss Vergie, the barmaid hero of Backbone Tavern, tells a young Snider that if he truly digs what he does then no one will ever get him down. Snider’s first set Sunday night celebrated such sentiments through story and song, but mostly in story. He told one about songwriter Mark Chesnutt stealing a riff from one of his songs, and relayed another story about his song “Beer Run,” which was passed along to Garth Brooks by songwriter Kent Blazy without acknowledgment or appropriate compensation. However, rather than wallow in bitterness, Snider took Miss Vergie’s advice to heart, seeing these characters not as obstacles, but as sympathetic figures equally committed to “just digging what they do.” As such, Snider’s stories are never expressly moralizing or overtly preachy, trappings that saddle folk music with a reputation for earnest humorlessness bordering on self-parody. Snider’s stories are, however, almost always hilarious—a result of Snider’s off-kilter timing and witty, uncultivated cool.
And Snider seemed downright giddy during the first set Sunday night, perhaps as a result of having another chance to redeem himself after a puttering performance on the previous night. “If Tomorrow Never Comes,” a somewhat forgettable blues from his otherwise-excellent release “The Devil You Know,” was transformed into a quiet folk ballad, foregrounding Snider’s recent move towards delicate fingerpicking in place of vigorous strumming. With the pace slowed considerably, the song’s weighty existentialist quandaries (and jabs at Blazy, who co-wrote a song with Brooks by the same name), could be processed with the care that their themes demanded. It was one of many highlights of a first-set that felt playful and lighthearted, off-the-cuff and celebratory. However, what makes Snider such a brilliant songwriter, and he is no doubt possessed by a certain hallucinatory brilliance, is the precision with which he moves from lightheartedness to heavyheartedness, sometimes over the course of a few lines. It’s a sensitivity to detail perfected by songwriters like Townes Van Zandt, whose songs of dread were always spiked with a dark humor that wasn’t always properly recognized. Snider’s second set pivoted in this direction, perhaps best realized in what has become his marquee song, “Play a Train Song,” which was played just feet from actual train tracks that sit outside the venue. It would be one of two songs Snider would play in the second set that were homages to fallen friends. The other song, an utterly devastating ballad called “Waco Moon,” detailed the passing of Snider’s close friend, guitarist Eddy Shaver, from a heroin overdose. The song still seems to take a toll on Snider. He was remarkably more subdued in the second set, still punctuating his songs with wisecracks and moments of levity, but leveling those moments out with reminiscences and reflections that confronted mortality with a sobering gracefulness and delicate touch. Snider chose to end his set with two songs by Eddy’s father, songwriter Billy Joe Shaver, as both a tribute to the Shaver family legacy and as an expression of gratitude for Billy’s enduring presence in Snider’s life. It was touching and wistful without being overwrought or maudlin; most importantly, it was a fitting conclusion to a second set that traversed a different set of emotions than the first while nevertheless retaining the enduring sense of purpose that undergirds all of Snider’s songs regardless of emotional sentiment or the relative seriousness of the subject matter.
In another deft shift in mood and texture, Snider pivoted back towards the lighthearted in the encore with a now-dated but still amusing satire of Seattle grunge rock called “Talkin’ Seattle Grunge Rock Blues,” a surprise hit from his 20+ year old debut “Songs For the Daily Planet.” And in a move that underscores Snider’s penchant for the unpredictable, the night concluded with a dead-serious take on KISS’ “Rock and Roll All Night,” which saw Snider at his most animated, raking his fingers down on his guitar strings and stomping his foot. It would not only close out tonight’s show, but it would also close out the first-leg of a long Winter tour for Snider. You got the sense that this song—played on acoustic guitar by a hippie folk singer losing his voice at the end of a grueling tour—was most fundamentally an affirmation of the spirit of rock n’ roll at its most primal and unvarnished, a joyful sound removed from spectacle and conveyed without a sense of restraint or self-awareness. It was refreshing and hopeful and messy and vibrant. Most importantly, it was undeniably clear that on this night Todd Snider was most assuredly digging what he was doing and nobody was going to get him down.
[Long Tour and Thank You]
[Mark Chesnutt Story]
[Garth Brooks Story]>
[Garth Brooks Story cont…]>
If Tomorrow Never Comes
[18 Minutes Intro]
Is This Thing Working
Me and Bobby McGee
Stuck On The Corner
Workin’ Man Blues
Play A Train Song
Desperados Waiting For A Train
Ballad Of The Devil’s Backbone Tavern>
Very Short Time
Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys
Ragged Old Truck
Ride Me Down Easy
Talkin’ Seattle Grunge Rock Blues
Rock And Roll All Night
Written by Vince Meserko, host of the Jookhouse and Hickory Wind.