Fully reserved seating
with special guest Dave Schools of Wide Spread Panic
Todd Snider is on the happy back end of happy hour at a favorite East Nashville bar, talking about his new album Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables. “This record doesnʼt come from good times,” Snider says. “I wanted to sound the way I feel, which
sometimes means sounding like a broken soul.”
On the 10 new songs, Snider doesnʼt talk around the vulnerable part, or the angry part, or the part about how everything weʼre taught about goodness and righteousness and capitalism, about God and family values winds up exploding into violence and chaos, wonder and longing. He might carry the mantle of “storyteller” – itʼs what he titled his live
record, after all – but Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables is anything but a nice, folk/Americana troubadour album.
Itʼs not a nice anything. It is jagged, leering, lurching and howling, and filled with unhappy endings both experienced and intimated: “It ainʼt the despair that gets you, itʼs the hope,” he sings in the album-closer, “Big Finish.” That Agnostic Hymns &
Stoner Fables is also roaringly funny is tribute to Sniderʼs unique sensibilities, and to his standing as what Rolling
Stone magazine calls “Americaʼs sharpest musical storyteller.” Anguish without laughter is boring, like intensive care without morphine, and Snider has never been within 100 miles of boring. Also, he didnʼt earn the attention, friendship and fandom of American musical giants like Kris Kristofferson and John Prine by writing mopey protest songs.
Anyway, these arenʼt protest songs and theyʼre not meant to incite class warfare (though he knows they might anyway). Theyʼre populated mostly by losers in the midst of losing, with a couple of spotlight appearances from the humbly anointed 1 percent. At albumʼs outset (“In The Beginning”), Snider credits the church with sustaining peace by noting that “We still need religion to keep the poor from killing the rich.” From there, itʼs on to the certainty of warped karma (“Good things happen to bad people,” he sings in “New York Banker.”), to a remarkable reworking of “West Nashville Grand Ballroom Gown” (possibly the albumʼs most acerbic song, and from the pen of Jimmy Buffett… no, really), and a slew of stories inspired by the world at large, writ small and barbed, in a manner both penetrating and empathetic. Thereʼs one happy love song, called
“Brenda,” about Sniderʼs favorite couple, Keith Richards and Mick Jagger. “I admire that relationship a lot,” Snider says. “What Mick and Keith have is real, and it canʼt be touched and it canʼt be beat. Iʼve never met them, but I believe in the Rolling Stones. Thatʼs who I think about at Christmas, anymore. They opened their hearts and gave us so much. And they tried to be true to each other.” Musically, Snider and co-producer Eric McConnell sought a sound that mirrored the times and that didnʼt replicate anything theyʼd done together on critically acclaimed works East Nashville Skyline, The Devil You Know or Peace Queer. With McConnell on bass and Snider playing guitar and harmonica, they gathered a core band of percussionist Paul Griffith, violinist/vocalist (and gifted songwriter) Amanda Shires, and keyboard player Chad Staehly, along with guest guitarist Jason Isbell and harmony vocalist Mick Utley, and offered up a sonic mission. “I told them I wanted to make a mess,” Snider says. “That was the goal.” And so a handful of accomplished musicians set about making a mess. And did so. Shiresʼ violin is the call-and-response heroine to Sniderʼs lyrics, filling the role Scarlett Rivera filled for Bob Dylan on Desire. Only messier. Meanwhile, Griffith makes like some off-kilter offspring of Keith Moon and Zigaboo Modeliste while Sniderʼs guitar plays lead switchblade. The result is something disconcerting, cracked and wholly original. Itʼs something that
stands apart from the music of Sniderʼs heroes, and from Sniderʼs own, muchcelebrated past. Agnostic Hymns & Stoner
Fables is Sniderʼs 12th album (14th, if we count a “best of” set and a collection of B-sides and demos), and it uses its
predecessors not as a compass but as a trampoline. Snider found different song forms, different inspirations (from Alaska neʼer do well Digger Dave to Chicago Mayor, former White House Chief of Staff and friend….. no, really….. Rahm Emanuel) and different means of expression. He paints a world where begging turns to mugging, where investment turns to ruin, where babies grow into felons, where honesty is blunt trauma: “Wish I could show you how you hurt me in a way that wouldnʼt hurt you, too,” he sings. And thereʼs no way.
Plus Nicki Bluhm & The Gramblers
Upon hearing the unique and refreshing sound of Nicki Bluhm, it becomes immediately clear why she is in the midst of a breakout year. Nicki has filled a void in music with her brand of vintage-tinged rocking country soul — music that’s like an enchanting friend you’ve known for a short while but feels like you’ve known forever.
In 2011 alone, Nicki has moved with grace and style from the studio to the main stages of the nation’s most revered music festivals (Outside Lands, High Sierra, Strawberry, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass), where her strong voice, striking presence and penchant for songcraft have made an undeniable impression and received rousing reception from audiences of all ages.
Nicki’s story began at a New Year’s Eve party where she sang an Allman Brothers song, catching the attention of musician/producer Tim Bluhm (Mother Hips). With Tim’s encouragement, Nicki began to write her own songs and perform in public. The two fell in love and married, followed by the recording of Nicki’s debut album, Toby’s Song (2008), which was heralded as one of Jambase’s top ten albums of the year.
Nicki’s music took on a life of its own with the formation of a band with childhood friend and lead guitarist Deren Ney. Nicki Bluhm & The Gramblers grew with the addition of drummer Mike Curry (Jackpot), bassist/vocalist Steve Adams (ALO), and rhythm guitarist/vocalist Dave Mulligan. The band headed into the studio and emerged with Nicki’s sophomore album, Driftwood (2011), a collection of songs that evoke the AM magic of Linda Ronstadt, the honest charm of Johnny and June Cash’s duets, and the stoney sounds of retro Memphis soul. “Part Karen Carpenter and part Grace Slick, Bluhm’s voice moves effortlessly between softer, country tinged balladry and retro ’60s/’70s rock,” No Depression declared.
Since Driftwood’s release, Nicki has performed with her band, as a duo with her husband, as a vocalist for West Coast supergroup Brokedown in Bakersfield, and as the special guest of countless musical legends. She has been called on to share the stage with Chris Robinson, Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks, Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Steve Kimock, Jackie Greene, Pegi Young and Josh Ritter; and has performed on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.” Nicki is currently touring and has a new album with Tim called Duets.
There’s no question that Nicki Bluhm is the “It Girl” of San Francisco’s storied music scene. Luckily for us, the future is looking even brighter for rock’s rising star.