Todd Snider & The Nervous Wrecks – Palms Playhouse (Davis, CA)
Before I get started, a few words of explanation are in order about the Palms Playhouse. I could try and sugar-coat it, but in plain terms, the Palms is a barn. Or at least it was 20-odd years ago, before they started having shows there. From the outside, it still looks like one, an image furthered by the rusty old tractor sitting maybe 30 feet from the front doors.
The club’s interior isn’t too far from its rustic beginnings either, with its bare cement floor and the rough-hewn appearance of the unfinished wood walls. The stage, with a horseshoe nailed above it, is smaller than my living room by about half, and the audience, numbering maybe 150, sits so close in their rickety wooden chairs that folks in the front row can literally reach out and touch the musicians onstage.
That’s what makes the Palms such a special place: the vibe, the rapport between artist and audience. A few musicians have been put off by its ramshackle appearance, but once they set foot onstage and begin to play, great things can happen (and quite often do). The typical Palms audience is attuned to this, and as a result, can be quiet enough to hear rain on the roof over soft passages of a song, or get up and dance like crazy, or carry on a running dialogue with the performers if they’re feeling chatty. In the folksy confines of this room, neither is unusual.
As for Todd Snider, I heard of him a year ago when a friend out east had seen him in a smallish club and commented, “There were maybe 50 people in the place, and we all just had a hoedown.” So I was looking forward to finding out what sort of a hoedown we might get from Snider.
Turns out he wearing a couple hats these days. One minute he was the Midwestern roots-rocker a la Mellencamp, stomping and headbanging. The next he was Ernest T. Bass, the gawkiest hayseed in three counties. His band — guitarist Will Kimbrough (formerly of Will & the Bushmen), bassist Joe Mariencheck, drummer Joe McLeary, and ex-High and Lonesome pianist David Zollo — tore it up quite ably on the more rollicking tunes, such as the Chuck Berry-esque “Late Last Night”, which closed the show.
But Snider’s true gifts shone brightest on his folkier songs. During an abbreviated solo segment, he told a story about auditioning in Nashville with a song called “You Bring the Condoms, I’ll Bring the Wine”. Instead of a contract, the bigwig who auditioned him offered some advice by way of a copy of Tom T. Hall’s book, How to Write Winning Songs. After trying for weeks to follow Hall’s edicts, he realized “I kinda liked those old clunky songs better. And if that’s mediocre, well, then mediocrity was my style.”
Within that “mediocrity” lies Snider’s charm and gift for insight. The song that followed, “Grown Up Too Much”, had me laughing and nodding my head in agreement with its chorus, “I feel like I’ve grown up a little bit too much / I’d like to grow back down.” Another lyrical truism came in the bluesier “Easy Money”, performed with the band. It nailed one of the most shameful trends in our society: “Everybody wants the most they can possibly get / For the least they can possibly do.”
On the other hand, songs such as “I Like Country When It Rocks”, despite its well-meaning sentiment and crowd-pleasing nature, just didn’t quite ring true — sort of like Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock & Roll”. He climbed on top of the monitors and exhorted the audience to dance, clap and sing along, but that didn’t fill the emptiness at the song’s core.
I went home intrigued by Snider’s wacky views of life. The guy’s crazy as a loon, and that’s a good thing. I just hope next time I see him, there’s a little more of Snider the storyteller and a little less of Snider the rock ‘n’ roll animal. We’ve got enough of those around already.