Todd Snider: Not So Little Rascal
Onstage and in conversation, acclaimed singer-songwriter-raconteur Todd Snider talks freely about potentially depressing subject matter like past incarcerations, poverty, and his ongoing struggles with addiction. Nevertheless, audiences tend to walk away from his shows feeling better than when they arrived. Because Snider, who hits the Helsinki Hudson stage for a solo acoustic set on Saturday, March 30, is funny, likely the funniest troubadour you will ever witness. Whether it’s his singalong waltz “Conservative Christian Right-Wing Republican, Straight, White American Males,” or his acerbic anti-war anthem “Bring ‘Em Home,” he infuses his material with a hot toddy of warm humor. A kind of profane, libertine, hippie Will Rogers, Snider conveys, above all else, tenderness, even in hopelessness.
If you don’t go for the songs, you’ll get your money’s worth with the patter alone. The wolfishly handsome Snider is as renowned for his between-song hijinks as his acclaimed, genre-busting albums, which regularly end up on Rolling Stone’s year-end “Best Of” lists. All in all, after nearly two decades of making music and incessant touring, his show is the epitome of charming, barely controlled chaos, and his admirers are many.
Not that he cares about those admirers. When asked how longtime fans have received his brazenly drunken, electric 2012 masterwork Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables, he says, “I wouldn’t know. I really only have random access to people and their opinions of the art I do, and as a whole, in my experience, the opinions of others are so different, there’s nothing really to be gained by listening to them. There just isn’t a scoreboard. I should also add that I don’t give any thought to gaining or losing fans. From the outside, this job looks like a popularity contest, but from the inside it’s anything but that.”
Despite, or perhaps because of, his sexy indifference to praise, the man is a songwriter’s songwriter, the onetime acolyte of John Prine, who mentored Snider back in the nineties. Over the years, Snider’s received accolades from Jimmy Buffett, Kris Kristofferson, and Jerry Jeff “Mr. Bojangles” Walker, for whom Snider crafted a ragged-but-right tribute album, Time As We Know It. It was Walker who inspired a barely-out-of-his-teens Snider to put aside his rocker dreams and go folkie, at least until the soul-broken romp Agnostic Hymns and Stoner Fables.
One of the highlights of Agnostic Hymns, which Snider will almost certainly perform in Hudson (especially if you holler a request), is “New Yorker Banker.” This raw, rocking first-person narrative sprang from a conversation with his admirer Rahm Emmanuel (yes, that Rahm Emmanuel) about a group of Arkansas teachers hoodwinked by infamous hedge fund manager John Paulson. Paulson placed their retirement funds in a bond designed to fail, which he bet against. The refrain: “Good thing happen to bad people.”
Although “New York Banker” and best-revenge-song-ever “Too Soon To Tell” (“Wish I could show you how you hurt me in a way that wouldn’t hurt you, too”) convey righteous anger, Snider says he doesn’t believe there is such a thing.
“It’s my opinion that anger is just a mask or the makeup we use to cover sadness and fear,” he says. “Our culture considers sadness and fear to be signs of weakness, and anger to be a sign of strength. I think this is why when people feel sad or afraid, they act angry. To me, the courageous thing is to embrace and complete and release the feelings of fear and sadness, thus creating no need for anger, which isn’t even real.”
Have any victims of “New York Banker”-style malfeasance approached him with appreciation? “No,” he says. “Mike Tyson reached out to me, though. I wrote a song about him being taken advantage of, too.”
Snider’s not all revenge and loss, though. Another gem from Agnostic Hymns is “Brenda,” on which he breaks new ground in the realm of the love song by penning a tribute to the lasting relationship between Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. (“Brenda” is Richards’ nickname for Jagger.) “Not long ago she almost lost him, a lesser man might’ve been dead, “ Snider sings, alluding to Richards’ 2006 fall from a coconut tree, “But just when she thought he might be giving up, he was back up in business instead.”
Todd Snider’s back in business, too. See him while he continues to beat the odds. —Robert Burke Warren
405 Columbia Street
Saturday, March 30, 2013, 9 p.m.