In this era of false advertising, it's refreshing to find something that delivers exactly what it name implies. When the band that calls itself Hard Working Americans took the stage at Nashville's Marathon Music Works on Feb. 21, it delivered on that promise.
The brainchild of endlessly touring Americana icon Todd Snider and Dave Schools, bassists for the jam scene's busiest road warriors Widespread Panic, Hard Working Americans is rounded out by a lineup of musicians that would make any jam hound salivate. Neal Casal of Chris Robinson Brotherhood on guitar, Chad Staehly of Great American Taxi on keys, and Duane Trucks of the Trucks Family on drums.
Hard Working Americans' live show takes the premise of their album, running the lyrical genius of Americana artists through the instrumental filter of the instrumental geniuses of the jam scene, and ramps it up to 11. During their 90 minute show, Hard Working Americans played the entirety of their self-titled debut, interspersed with a few of Snider's own songs and a couple of new covers that weren't on the album.
Kicking off with their album's opener, Frankie Miller's “Blackland Farmer”, the band ran red hot all night with extensions of the already extended instrumental arrangements of the album's covers. Everyone in the band pulled his weight ably, but it was Neal Casal who really shined brightest with some of the best Southern rock guitar riffs this side of Allmans-era Dickey Betts. The band knew when to be subtle, like on “Mr. President (Have Pity on the Working Man)” or “Welfare Music” and when to rock it out, like their fiery renditions of Will Kimbrough's “Another Train” or Hayes Carll's “Stomp and Holler”, which closed out the main portion of the show.
The real fun began when the band re-arranged some of Snider's own tunes. In keeping with the band's name and the theme of the covers chosen for their album, Hard Working Americans tended to focus on Snider's more socially conscious songs like “Is This Thing Working?” and “Stuck on the Corner.” Snider's done rocked up versions of his tunes before but never have these acoustic folk songs ever been brought to more bombastic life than in the hands of these musicians.
Of course, heading up the whole circus is Todd Snider. Snider has long hung his hat (or perhaps his shoes, as he never seems to be wearing them) on his ability to command an audience. Whether singing, telling stories, or just mugging along with the crowd, Snider is the consummate performer and he brought everything in his bag of tricks to Nashville for this homecoming show.
But the true highlight of the night came at the close of the show, with the band's heart wrenching rendition of Gillian Welch's “Wrecking Ball.” Snider has spoken in interviews about how that song brought him close to tears when they recorded it, hitting a little close to home in describing his own struggles with personal demons. That passion was well displayed live. Snider is often a funny singer, sometimes an energetic singer, and occasionally a sentimental singer. But his live rendition of “Wrecking Ball” brought out a world-weary vocal quality rarely seen in his solo shows.
Opening up the night was local band Turbo Fruits. With a guitar heavy garage rock sound, the band fit in well with the night and likely won over a number of fans with their energetic performance.