The Scene: Christmas arrived early at the Boulder Theater as the hallowed venue played host to a special debut performance from Hard Working Americans in the waning days of 2013. Hard Working Americans is the newest super-group to make headlines in the American music scene. The group is spearheaded by the sharp wit of singer-songwriter Todd Snider alongside bassist Dave Schools (Widespread Panic), guitarist Neal Casal (The Chris Robinson Brotherhood), Chad Staelhy on keys (Great American Taxi) and Duane Trucks (Col. Bruce Hampton’s School of Music) on drums. Duane’s older brother Derek is a force in the jam circuit and his uncle Butch was a founding member of the Allman Brothers Band in 1969. Naturally, Duane and the Trucks legacy create quite the forceful presence and entertain plenty of interested onlookers. An enormous line was already snaking its way around the corner when we arrived early in the evening. I witnessed an interesting mix of veteran Panic fans, youthful worshippers of Todd Snider’s life lessons and plenty of music lovers relishing the opportunity to see the highly anticipated debut from this group of Hard Working American musicians.
Hard Working Americans: The idea for the Hard Working Americans project arrived out of a desire to represent the ordinary man through song whose contributions in society often go unnoticed. The tracks were handpicked by Snider from a batch of folk songs written in the last decade by the likes of Randy Newman, Hayes Carll and Gillian Welch among others. Although the themes of these songs mostly grapple with the darkness of economic despair and class-consciousness, the results were mostly warm, melodic and full of life. I’ve always admired Todd Snider’s personality and stage presence because he seems to have a gift for telling stories that very few musicians possess. Seeing him surrounded by such amazing talent makes his power shine even brighter. The Boulder crowd responded well to the oft-distracted Snider throughout the night and you could tell the group was really enjoying their newfound freedom away from other more permanent projects.
After a brief yet skillful solo performance from Texas native Hayes Carll to open the night, Todd Snider’s newest creation took the stage and they immediately jumped right into their unique collection of covers.
Tonight we were given a glimpse at the self-tilted debut album from Hard Working Americans that is scheduled for release on January 21st. As the show quickly progressed it was easy to see the comfort level between the new band members wasn’t quite locked in place yet. Todd was often left looking around confused as to how to wring out the most emotion out of every song while Duane seemed lost in his own world at the back of the stage. Of course, it’s easy to ignore these issues when you have someone like Dave Schools playing Bass guitar. Throughout the night his fingers dashed across his signature Modulus Quantum six-string, helping to whip-up a frenzied sound that burst into life on songs like “Stomp and Holler” and Frankie Miller’s “Blackland Farmer.” Hayes Carll joined the boys during “S&H” and suddenly it no longer seemed like a typical Friday night as the crowd danced and raucously belted out the familiar chorus. A cover of Kevin Gordon and Lucinda Williams’ “Down to The Well” was another highlight with Snider leading the way on vocals once again. Unfortunately, Gillian Welch’s “Wrecking Ball” which is a beautiful song in its own right, missed the mark with the band overreaching and ultimately failing to capture the fragility of the track. Minus a few hiccups, I really enjoyed the way the songs flowed together during this set and it was nice to hear Neil and Dave really getting after it in the louder moments.
When I exited the Boulder Theater after the set I couldn’t help but smile at the performance I just witnessed. There may have been a few minor missteps along the way but Todd Snider and the rest of this crew have the passion and drive to be one of the rare Rock super groups with permanent staying power. Of course staying power may not be realistic when you have members who already define some of the greatest American bands of our time but at the very least it showcases these musicians branching out from their normal routines. I can’t wait to hear tales from the road as Hard Working Americans embark on their first tour in late January.
Stage Presence: B+
Set/Light Show: B-