All words: Jeb Gavin — All photos: Marie Formica
I am not embarrassed to say, seeing Todd Snider play the Birchmere this past Wednesday night fulfilled a life-long dream of mine. Not in the sense that it’s something grand or particularly awing on my part- that’s simply to say I haven’t been alive that long, and I’ve been waiting since 2001 to see him live. Back then I was living in Georgia, and spent a year drunk with little to show for it. Sure, I discovered the Drive-By Truckers, and was present when John Mayer recorded his first music video at the Georgia Theater in Athens, and I guess I cherish the lifelong friends I made. But other than that, it was a lost year… save for one badly hungover (hanged-over?) morning, waking up in the shower and hearing Snider’s “Beer Run”. Setting aside my amazement that a radio station was playing alternative country, I was entranced. By the time I got my hands on one of his albums and heard “Talkin’ Seattle Grunge Rock Blues,” I was a fan for life. It pained me up until this week that I’d missed him every time he played Atlanta, Athens, DC, Baltimore, and various other cities where I’d miss him by no more than a day.
The music is sort of a laconic, West Texas roadhouse country- mostly acoustic guitar with the occasional harmonic riff thrown in. Songs focus on his own experiences, the more messed up aspects of human nature far down the socioeconomic ladder, and being a perpetual underdog because simply have nothing that’d give you the upper hand in any situation. Sometimes, they’re just a folky excuse to recount getting drunk. The show opened with “Beer Run,” to my and everyone else’s delight. Snider pointed out how much he enjoys playing this song, and never gets sick of it, no matter how often he has to play it. He jokingly said he even played it through a few times in his dressing room before the show, just for fun.
Stories and jokes are a big part of his act. These days, Snider tours without a band. He stood just slightly off-center of the stage, more a comedian who plays the occasional unfunny song than just a singer-songwriter. He looks and sounds a little like a less irreverent Mitch Hedberg with longer stories, these meandering tales leading to or about the song he’s about to play, or sometimes the song he’s right in the middle of playing. The buildup is all part of the show. Every line seems calculated to the point of being effortless, strung together in any order, so when the audience started yelling suggestions the set became a Markov chain of laughs and songs.
At one point he told the story of his first open mic night, and having to follow a songwriter named Aaron Allan. As it turns out, Allan played a Willie Nelson song when all the performers were supposed to play their own songs. Upon complaining to the organizer, Snider found out Allan actually wrote songs for guys like Willie Nelson, and decided to pick his brain for advice on how to become a successful songwriter. All Allan could pass along was the advice a drunken slob had given him: you will always be able to write songs if you live in such a way that no matter where you are or who you are with, you can pack up everything you own and be gone in 15 minutes. Granted, it was way funnier when he explained it, but my takeaway from that is the secret to good songwriting is, be Robert De Niro’s character in Heat.
Closing out his set, Snider sang “Alright Guy,” which is a song about how he’s not a terrible guy, though probably not nearly as good a guy as he might hope to be. While the song itself is rife with explanations of his good and bad qualities, he decided during the breakdown to tell yet another story, an even better example of how he’s an alright guy, though by no means a bad or great one. Once when hitchhiking, he witnessed a car crash, and while he didn’t want to help, he felt he couldn’t just walk past without offering some assistance. So he asked the driver, clearly injured, if she was OK, to which she indicated pretty clearly, no. But upon hearing sirens in the distance, the driver held up a bag of weed, asking Snider to dispose of it before the police arrived. Snider explained, since it was all it seemed he could do to help, he took that bag, and then got as far away from the accident and the responding authorities as he could.
As I mentioned, the stories are as big a part of the show as the music. If they seem long, perhaps a bit shaggy, that’s intentional. Like all good songwriters, even those not ready to blow town at a moment’s notice, Todd Snider knows how to spin a yarn, and I cannot believe it has taken me so long to see him play live.
Age Like Wine
Beer Run (reprise)
Too Soon to Tell
In the Beginning
Stuck on the Corner
I Spoke As a Child
Ballad of the Devil’s Backbone Tavern
Lookin’ for a Job
Just Like Old Times
Conservative Christian, Right-Wing Republican, Straight White American Males
New York Banker
It’s Only Rock and Roll (tease)
Play a Train Song
- Opener Kevin Gordon: