TVD Live: Todd Snider
at The Birchmere, 3/18

Todd Snider walks on stage in a goofy hat, trusty guitar, barefoot, but also with his equally raggedy dog, Cowboy Jim, who promptly lies down and listens to these songs and stories one more time.

“A dog! How folkie is that!” Snider exclaims to the appreciative audience at the Birchmere Music Hall in Alexandria and starts in on one of his newest songs, a talking blues about television, reality, reality television, and our current situation (“Reality killed by a reality star”). It was so up to date it even had a commentary about Michael Jackson (“Reality killed that video star”).

Snider, 52, likes to take apart traditions even as he is extending them, so he took time to explain the rules of the talking blues format (“All you gotta rhyme is a line or two”) within the song. And the format seemed just right for him as his shows are a mix of songs with sometimes equally long stories. And if the songs are old favorites, some of the stories are too. They get their own titles on his live albums, and his audiences laugh anew at each one.

At least the audiences don’t (yet) yell requests for certain stories. But they’re full of song requests, and half the show Monday seemed full of songs that dated back a quarter century or so from “Alright Guy” and “Beer Run,” his most obvious and most popular, to “Play a Train Song” and “Statistician’s Blues.”

Snider first came to fame in 1994, with an offhand rock commentary, “Talking Seattle Grunge Rock Blues,” about a band too cool to play a note. But that song’s been left off his list and from the requests.

While Snider likes to put on the persona of the stoned slacker, he puts together some pretty good albums, the latest of which had come out days earlier, Cash Cabin Sessions, Vol. 3, although there aren’t any parts one or two, just as there isn’t a part one of his “Better Than Ever Blues, Part 2.” It’s another example of his poking fun as an aspect of song tradition — parts!

The new album seems titled like a game show, but it was actually recorded in Johnny Cash’s Cash Cabin Studio outside of Nashville and included a few more of his deconstruction of music idioms even as he played in their traditions.

One, “Working on a Song,” done early in the set, tells of trying for years to get one written with on particular line “Where will I go not that I’m gone,” which he now accomplishes. Another, “The Blues on Banjo,” in the encore, both breaks the rule of playing blues on that instrument while also knocking down the requisites of the form: “Well I woke up this morning, and I realized that I repeat myself.”

“Banjo” is the odd song that has a call-back joke from its spoken intro, about how Townes Van Zandt once said there’s only two kinds of music, the blues or “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.” And he also had a call-back joke late in the show that referred to an earlier story about being ready to split any situation within 15 minutes.

It’s the kind of thing tying together a comedy set that Dave Chappelle does so well, proving Snider has the simultaneous skills of comedy and Woody Guthrie-style musical entertaining. And Cowboy Jim just follows him wherever he goes.

SETLIST
Talking Reality Television Blues
Working on a Song
Ballad of the Devil’s Backbone Tavern
DB Cooper
Too Soon to Tell
Just Like Overnight
Better Than Ever Blues Part 2
Play a Train Song
Horseshoe Lake
Conservative Christian, Right Wing, Republican, Straight White American
Statistician’s Blues
Beer Run
Carla
Alright Guy
Like a Force of Nature

Can’t Complain
The Blues on the Banjo
The Legend of Col. Bruce Hampton, Ret.

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