Photos & Story by Scott A. Smith
Snippets of Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild”and instrumental playing abilities that somehow retained a relaxed looseness without ever losing impressive technical aspects were among the many winning moments experienced during Hard Working Americans’ two-hour, sold-out concert Aug. 26 at George’s Majestic Lounge in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
The energy radiating from the fairly new group of critically acclaimed music veterans — singer Todd Snider, guitarist Neal Casal (Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Ryan Adams & The Cardinals), bassist Dave Schools (Widespread Panic), keyboardist Chad Staehly (Great American Taxi), guitarist-pedal steel player Jessy Aycock and drummer Duane (brother of Derek) Trucks — was infectious, to say the absolute least. The music and lyrics were bold yet left room for some vulnerability, and the music almost never strayed from the song-comes-first-before-soloing school of thought.
Think of Hard Working Americans as a harder-edged — and as a result, a more interesting — version of Grateful Dead. There’s the rock-meets-classic-country vibe, yet with an energetic delivery not unlike the attack of The Doors and 1970s-era Rolling Stones. HWA plays rock, hard rock, Americana and edgy folk. HWA is like The Band with Allman Brothers Band-esque guitar solos and funky, occasionally prog-rock-like bass lines.
Fresh from his recent shows with Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Casal delivered a stream of six-stringed goods, alternating between textured, almost-gentle guitar strokes to savage rock playing. Some of Casal’s lead work boasted traces of Roxy Music’s Phil Manzanera at his unhinged best, and Schools’ mobile bass patterns rotated between being a low-end anchor and being able and willing to act as another lead instrument.
Standing, prancing and clapping in the middle of the appropriately loud band was Snider, looking much like a blonder, tougher version of J. Geils Band’s Peter Wolf. Donning a plaid, long-sleeved shirt, jeans and a hat, the smiling, barefooted Snider seemingly loved every second under the multi-colored spotlights. “I Don’t Have A Gun,” “Another Train,” “Down to the Well” and “Blackland Farmer” all benefited from Snider’s smokey vocals. Snider’s voice carries a been-there-done-that-vibe, yet it’s a voice with more optimism and soul-searching than flat-out cynicism.
For “Straight to Hell,” fans ranging in age from 21 to upper 60s sang along and pointed their cups and bottles skyward. Hard Working Americans’ vocal harmonies were air-tight on this song and virtually all of the other tracks, and Aycock’s assertive pedal-steel skills and Staehly’s tasty organ work never dipped in quality or intensity.
When the encore section came way too soon, Hard Working Americans dished up “Run a Mile” before launching into “Day of the Locusts” and show-closer “Purple Mountain Jamboree.”
Despite the absence of Hard Working Americans’ much-cherished cover version of Gillian Welch’s “Wrecking Ball,” the gig was lightning-style perfection in a shiny bottle. Not only is Hard Working Americans one of the most interesting outfits to emerge over the last two years, but the group, for those two magical hours on that wooden stage in Fayetteville, was the best band in America.