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Todd Snider w/ Jason Isbell @ The Pabst Theater

April 25, 2013

Apr. 26, 2013
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Melissa Miller
A simple way to distinguish the two converse personas of the Americana acts on Thursday’s Pabst Theater bill was to observe how the troubadours treated an obnoxious heckler in the third row. The slick and pensive Jason Isbell mainly let the comments roll off his back. “I think there’s at least one person tonight that came from Madison,” he joked. The swashbuckling Todd Snider, on the other hand, confronted the curmudgeon head on early in his set. “Listen, man,” he explained. “I’m trying to tell a story about a dear friend of mine.” Snider continued to deride the man for interrupting his time and sarcastically offered to give him 45 minutes on stage when he finished. Met with uproarious applause from an up-to-that-point hushed crowd, Snider never outright requested the dude’s removal, but security got the hint and escorted him from his seat.

The mild-manneredness and thoughtfulness shown by ex-Drive-By Truckers guitarist Isbell reverberated throughout his brief opening set. Strumming gently on an acoustic guitar, he approached his songs with a blue-collar mentality. He combined strains of blues, Southern folk and his Alabama roots into his well-crafted story-songs. Simple yet deep, his songs were hardly uplifting, a fact Isbell pointed out after a serene ode about a friend succumbing to cancer felt excessively depressing. “I don’t have a whole lot of happy songs, really,” he remarked.

When Snider popped out, he immediately brightened the gloomy mood. Many of his rambling folk songs produce hearty laughs and he began with a particularly comical enterprise. From “Tension,” he talk-sang two-thirds of the way through, “In America that guy likes his bad guys dead / Preferably after some kick-ass car chase.” Snider’s writing consists of loads of characters, but perhaps none larger than Snider himself.  After every song—and sometimes even during it—he’d wryly posit the meaninglessness of another life problem or petty issue that gets people wound up. Scruffy and probably stoned, he spent the night plucking his acoustic guitar seemingly without a care in the world, like an alt-country version of Pavement.

As Isbell did, Snider performed without a backing band, although Isbell accompanied Snider on electric guitar during the second of his 45-minute sets. Even though requests were taken during this time and Snider boasts an extensive 18-year catalog, Isbell filled in seamlessly and his contribution added an eloquent, placid depth. While Isbell displayed his subtle chops, Snider persisted in his ramshackle goofball routine. The combination felt essentially like a buddy-cop movie—Isbell, the baby-faced, by-the-books lawman and Snider, the grizzled, freewheeling loose cannon. No complaints regarding a sequel.


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