Hard Working Americans, El Rey Theatre, Los Angeles, CA- 8/13
A figure dressed in black and wearing dark sunglasses appeared at center stage, reminded the crowd (maybe unnecessarily, maybe not) of who he is, told of his deep friendship with the Hard Working Americans frontman, Todd Snider, and his love of the band, before properly introducing the group. It was a bit of old-fashioned showmanship—to have comedian Richard Lewis do the honors—and this is still Hollywood, but it was also the kind of moment that arrived heartfelt, slightly askew, and fun—much like the band’s subsequent performance.
A second-line starter in “Mission Accomplished” came alive with the lap steel accents of guitarist Jesse Aycock, into the descending funk of “Dope is Dope,” and a delay-pedal solo run by Neal Casal on guitar. Snider was kinetic; shaking and shuttering as though electrified. His folk-influenced vocals got grittier on Hayes Carll’s “Stomp and Holler,” as he called out to his fellow Americans, recited lyrics of “Who Do You Love” as poetry, and blew a mean harmonica. He’s Mick Jagger if imagined by Jack Kerouac.
The climbing octaves of Kieran Kane’s “The Mountain Song” followed, with drummer Duane Trucks pounding the toms as Casal and bassist David Schools squared off for a gorgeous Casal solo, intersected by Chad Staehly’s electric piano. The straight line of “Throwing Goats” led into the slowed space of “Ascending Into Madness,” then the impending rhythm of “Something Else,” as Snider complemented Casal’s melodic turns of phrase. A shadowy “Roman Candles” preceded a School’s bassline that underscored Snider’s dedication of “Down to the Well” to Lewis and his wife.
Rock-and-roller “Half Ass Moses” stomped into Snider introducing “The High Price of Inspiration,” calling the song’s author, the late Guy Clark, one of School’s favorites. This was also a transitional point, as the next three entries segued one into another for an extended set-piece, starting with “Burn Out Shoes,” then Will Kimbrough’s “Another Train” and “Is This Thing Working” back to “Another Train.” Casal and Aycock shined, but not without the heavy punch of the entire unit that linked each tune with precision. A triple-encore kicked off with “Been Down So Long,” got quiet on “Wrecking Ball,” then finished high on “Stuck on the Corner.”
The appeal of Hard Working Americans is both individual and collective. Schools is rock-steady reliable, a groove machine that drives Trucks as much as Trucks drives him. Aycock and Staehly slide between rhythmic anchors and soloists of thought and variety. Casal is a guitar hero-in waiting; his contributions to the jam band community becoming more anticipated and celebrated with each appearance. And Snider, saved not by folk but by rock and roll, is a lead singer with all the requisite magnetism and none of the bloated pretense.
Together, it works, hard, as a viable alternative ensemble for players often known better for the other bands, like Widespread Panic and Chris Robinson Brotherhood, that employ them. More stellar performances like this might just change that.