Hard Working Americans – feat. Todd Snider, Dave Schools, Neal Casal, Chad Staehly, Duane Trucks – Brighton Music Hall, Boston, MA 1/12/14

We all have our own personal greatest hits list.  A dozen or so songs that stand out to us either because of the sound, the lyrics, or maybe the memories it invokes.  If you’re a musician, in addition to listening to the music, you can actually perform your “Favorites” playlist.  If you’re a musician’s musician, like singer Todd Snider, a performer who has the respect of his peers, you could form a band of willing conspirators to play and record your personal take on your favorite covers.  This is essentially the genesis for The Hard Working Americans.

Immediately upon arriving at the 500 capacity Brighton Music Hall it was evident that this band was a little different then the usual club gig.  In the spot where the white (think B movie-child kidnapping vehicle) van and U-Haul trailer would normally be found was a first class, rock star, tour bus.  Despite just a few weeks notice of the band’s third show (ever) the club was filled to capacity when the soft, psychedelic guitar noodling began.  The band eased delicately into the Kevin Gordon/Lucinda Williams’ “Down to the Well.”  Snider and guitarist Neal Casal harmonized nicely on vocals.  Casal’s slide guitar work which segued into Chad Staehly’s keyboard solo was the only accelerant the anxious crowd needed to vocally demonstrate their support.  The Stones circa Exile on Main Street “Train Song” featured Snider on harmonica.  Snider who has the soul of Kris Kristofferson stuck in Scott Weiland’s body type with a voice reminiscent of vintage Steven Tyler  told the crowd, “We’ve come a long way in the hopes of bringing you closer together.”  A statement that was true both literally and metaphorically.

hardworkAmidst the artistic vision, musical creativity and the illicit chemical compounds circulating around Snider’s brain was the idea of singer/songwriter material essentially being performed by a jam band.    While not exactly an original concept (see the Grateful Dead’s live versions of “American Beauty” or “Workingman’s Dead”) the thought of doing it with a collaboration of musicians was novel.  So with the assistance of bassist Dave Schools (Widespread Panic), guitarist Casal (The Cardinals, Chris Robinson Brotherhood), keyboardist Chad Staehly (Great American Taxi) and drummer Duane Trucks (Col. Bruce Hampton’s School of Music) were recruited to record an album of covers.  Although recorded in just five days at Bob Weir’s TRI studio the album borders between good and excellent and formed the basis for the live set list.

Schools’ driving bass and Trucks’ steadiness were evident on the heavier, darker “Blackland Farmer” and on the as heavy metal as folk can get “Another Train”.  Despite the few performances the rhythm section is so adept at delineating the groove the sound is a melody unto itself.  This allows Casal, Snider and Staelhy to create their own melodies.  The band is all about the music as they remained stationary for the most part and the stage lights never changed once during the performance.  The gospel blues of “I Don’t Have A Gun” was extended with a keyboard centered jam.  Randy Newman’s “Mr. President Have Pity on the Working Man” was arranged as a traditional blues progression.

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The band’s name and song titles are not coincidental as this band is about the ninety-nine percent; a fact Snider often alluded to between songs.   The musicians eemed to ramble aimlessly in a couple of spots and while the ultimate musical destination may have been unclear the band members seemed to be enjoying the journey.  As the end of the set neared the band finally pulled it all together with the country honk of “Mountain Song”.  Casal’s solo built and built and built seemingly converting audience members one by one until that magical zenith moment with the solo peaking upon having captured everyone’s undivided attention.    The commercial sounding single “Stomp and Holler”, with the spot on lyric “I’m like James Brown only white and taller” closed the set.

A tentative version of Dylan’s “She Belongs to Me” was followed by Gillian Welch’s lyrically heavy, “Wrecking Ball.”   Regardless of whether the Hard Working Americans becomes a band or ends up a one off side project your hard earned dollars would be well spent on either the album or a concert ticket.

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