You’ve probably heard this truism before, “To fully appreciate this artist, you have to see him play live.” In most cases, that turns out to be an exaggeration, if not untrue. It’s only the rare performer who can eclipse his recorded material, and offer his audience something transcendent, something intangibly special. Bruce Springsteen immediately jumps to mind as the obvious archetype, but there are many more, of course. One of the singer-songwriters making the rounds now that best fits this description is Todd Snider, the roots troubadour.
With the release of his second live record, The Storyteller, it becomes laser-clear that Snider is one of the best combination raconteur/folk songwriters since John Prine ambled his way onto the scene back in the ’70s. This double-disc set captures a typically rowdy Snider set in action, and offers songs where he’s accompanied by a small combo as well as his more standard solo acoustic versions.
Snider is a songwriter of some note, whose songs have been covered by various country artists such as Gary Allan, Cross Canadian Ragweed, and others. But he’s easily his own best interpreter, because of his offbeat, charming delivery. Like many a great singer-songwriter, Snider possesses neither an exceptional voice or above average guitar skills. What he does bring to the party, though, is his own inimitable point of view: a wry, self-deprecating, seemingly slightly stoned, hilarious, and authentic persona.
Storyteller opens with “Greencastle Blues”, a low-key ode from his last record, The Excitement Plan, which details both a recent pot bust in Indiana as well as the Snider ethos—a mishmash of post-hippie attitude, Zen-koan truth, and poignant one-liners. It’s an auspicious introduction, and sets the tone for the retrospective set that follows.
It’s also important to get a visual here, for those who have never seen him in concert. Snider always wears his battered hobo hat, jeans, shirt untucked, skinny tie, and is, inevitably, barefoot: a ragged but right ensemble that underscores his roguish but hayseed demeanor. Cross Huck Finn with a more amicable Bob Dylan, and you get close to where Snider lives.
In Snider’s unpretentious world, he doesn’t compose songs as much as “make shit up”, as he so eloquently puts it. Somewhere in every show, he announces his mission statement, which sums up his shaggy dog credo: “I want to let you know that I might share some of my opinions with you over the course of the evening—I’m not going to share them with you because they’re smart or because I think you need to know’em, I’m going to share them with you because they rhyme. I didn’t come down here to change anyone’s mind about anything, I come down here to ease my own mind about everything.”
With more than a dozen records behind him, Snider is able to draw from an abundance of strong material here. He pulls a few songs from early in his career, but the majority of the set is comprised of recent material from The Devil You Know and East Nashville Skyline, probably his best record. Songs like “The Ballad of the Kingsmen”, which deals with music censorship, “America’s Favorite Pastime”, a funky but true account of how Dock Ellis once threw a no-hitter while on LSD, and the rollicking “Sideshow Blues” all show Todd’s topical sense of timing and how well his songs blend together in concert.
As fine as his music is though, what makes him really stand out on stage is his storytelling ability. If not a musician, Snider could have become a standup comedian—he is that gifted. The aptly named Storyteller contains at least five or six of his comic set-pieces, where he rambles on for five minutes at a time in a kind of absurdist, slacker shtick that somehow connects back to the song at hand. Many good performers do this to an extent, but Snider’s cockeyed banter truly is unique. He ricochets from recounting how his first mushroom trip in high school led to him quitting the football team and embarking on the gypsy life, to how he was once conned by an imposter posing as Bill Elliott, the NASCAR driver.
Like many other exceptional live records, Storyteller embodies the best of this artist, the full-tilt Todd Snider experience. Between his scruffy charisma, narrative verve, and ace songs, Snider is the total package: one of America’s consummate, songwriting performers.