Hard Working Americans

Stick it to the man

By Holly Gleason
Photography by Stacie Huckeba


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“I’ve never really taken care of my voice,” Todd Snider offers, half charcoal rasp, half turpentine and sand paper vigor, into the microphone at Audio Productions. “I just have one of those voices that can get it from drinking coffee and smoking … ”

The obvious reference hangs in the air of the control room like a sweet cloud of cannabis drifting on late afternoon humidity. Everyone laughs in the sterile, professional, “taking care of business” environment of the storied studio where the BBC, NPR, and countless syndicated radio properties capture their business.

Today, Snider — and the other members of Hard Working Americans — have set up for an interview and jam session for the NPR radio show World Cafe. Somewhere in Philadelphia, host Dave Dye laughs down the line. Snider, known for his acerbic social commentary, ironic take on the world, and yes, occasional illegal smiles, has found a muscular new flex with a contraband band of musical ninjas that includes Widespread Panic bassist and coconspirator Dave Schools, Chris Robinson Brotherhood guitarist Neal Casal, Great American Taxi keyboardist Chad Staehly, Oklahoma slide/steel/ stringed instrument wizard Jesse Aycock, and the band’s secret weapon, drummer Duane Trucks.

To call them a jam band supergroup is just the sort of hyperbole they eschew. Yet, it’s hard to avoid the obvious credits of the assembled members — and even harder to miss the muscular way they collectively work out on songs like the percolating “Dope Is Dope,” the stampeding “Purple Mountain Jamboree,” or the sweeping rush and lumbering beat of “Opening Statement,” which kicks off Rest In Chaos with a sense that something portentous is about to happen.

The far-flung collective’s origins stem from an unlikely one-off show in California’s wine country with Schools and Snider collaborating and reinventing songs. That would make it seem HWA was merely a feel good way to blow off steam. Think a group of cool guys, riffing on songs the troubadour Snider sniffed out and loved, pushing musical notions like some kind of six-stringed hacky sack with a killer rhythm section.


“They are a stellar collection of musicians’ musicians,” Relix Editor in Chief Dean Budnik says of the stealth supergroup. “People who listen closely to music, they can tell the difference. Everyone in this band is so accomplished. Plus, they are people who live and breathe the music — they’re all encyclopedic and their influences are manifested, certainly on that first album, and this new one, but especially onstage. …”

Certainly places to get one’s musical yayas out with the freedom and engagement Budnik describes gets harder as you get older: life encroaches, obligations to one’s own career, even finding players who are truly likeminded instead of merely “digging your band” and thinking their take on music is in sync can be nearly impossible.

Schools, a tidal force of humanity who teeters between wildly chill and impossibly formidable, recognized there was more here than a handful of stellar songs loved by Snider. Yes, the diverse coterie — Kieran Kane, Hayes Carll, David Rawlings and Gillian Welch, Kevn Kinney, Randy Newman, as well as Will Kimbrough, Tommy Womack, Chuck Meade, and Kevin Gordon — spoke to the collective’s vast ethos. But beyond the good spirits working out on this eclectic patchwork, there was the combined chemistry that seemed to lift everything up.

Alchemy, kineticism, magic, voodoo. Call it what you want, there was something more to the group assembled for 10 dates to celebrate Hard Working Americans — starting in December of 2013 at a benefit for Colorado Flood Relief in Boulder. If each of the hardcore musicians were used to serving a front man or larger aesthetic, Snider was finding himself buoyed and lifted by an oddly adhesive band of players who found inspiration and freedom in each other’s company.

They recorded their debut at Bob Weir’s TRI Studio in Marin County — the ground zero where the band of gypsies, who worked relatively the same places, came together for the first time as players and people. By the time they hit Chicago’s I.V. Lab Studios in the bleak freezing cold of January 2014, they were blazing, without truly understanding the how or the why. But before we get into that, let’s look at the chemistry between Schools, Snider, and the Through the Looking Glass vision and White Rabbit magic of the seemingly unlikely pair. Oh, and you get a side order of … The Blind Lemon Pledge.

Sitting in the ersatz Hard Working Americans’ world headquarters, the garishly painted building half a block from 5 Points, Schools laughs when asked to explain The Pledge. “I can’t,” he says. “Frankly, it’s absurd. Todd called me one day and said: ‘I’m now legally dead. The folk singer Todd Snider is dead; I’m now The Blind Lemon Pledge.’ It was a little later than 4:30 in the morning, which is morning for him — not the end of the day. It’s the end of the day for me, especially if I’m on the West Coast.”


Ahhh, the communication tides of creativity beaming in across wavelengths — and disrupting each other’s wavelengths in the name of the songs, which ultimately is what this is about. Schools continues, “I can only address the idea of song cycles and The Blind Lemon Pledge as it’s part of being receptive to Todd and being receptive to what he wants to do and be like. So …”

Snider laughs, too. Here amidst the vintage gear, hippie wall hangings, old rock posters, junk shop furniture, and worn-out Oriental rugs, a trust among comrades is on display. Snider starts to pick up, “As it was happening, he was like …”

But Schools isn’t surrendering his part of the narrative, recalling, “It ALL has to happen. The game has to happen. I begged him to finish this record over a year and a half ago.”

Things had bogged down. Snider got lost in the maze, and perhaps some doubt. Schools knew what they had. Like a true coconspirator, he knew Snider needed encouragement — and faith.

“I didn’t beg,” Schools clarifies. “I said, ‘Please allow me to finish this record.’ Did I know what it was? Could I have put it down in a pitch? No. I just knew it meant something valuable, and it pushed a button in me that made sense.”

Sense? Seems like crazy talk looking back. But Schools was undaunted. He knows what he knows, and he knows by drawing on the past, he can forecast. With the Buddha’s smile, sitting at a banged up table, he pushes the hank of dark hair that’s fallen in his face away — and drops a little bleach in the greasy thought-water.

“Now to go back to the last record,” he says, “and talking about the songs and why they were chosen or sequenced, the idea of — I think it was Chad who said — ‘Todd always envisions his albums as a play, or scripts from a movie, scenes from a play,’ which I took into account for sequencing.

“My favorite records of 51 years of loving music are records that seem unified. So as Todd kind of regards his as plays, that fascinates me. Our first record: that’s not really a concept record, unless you wanna step way the fuck back: it’s just great songs, beyond Todd likes them and we became a band around them. That’s a concept.”

Schools is on a roll now. Like a backwater preacher before the snakes are passed, he brings his narrative to a climax that’s both satisfying and true. “This is the story of Hard Working Americans becoming a band; it’s the story of Todd Snider writing a movie about his life. It’s the story of Todd Snider going from East Nashville to Hendersonville. It IS what it is. I don’t know if it’s pretentious or anything, but I knew I wanted to enable it, because it made me feel something in a certain way. I wanted to finish it.”

Schools, growing more contemplative, or perhaps literal, continues, “And, the way the songs related to us as a band, Todd as a human being. This is what came out of Todd that was bubbling for decades in some cases — and he allowed it, trusted this band enough to let it solidify right here, right now.”

Let’s circle back to The Blind Lemon Pledge, a mythic man, a serious board game (that has yet to be produced, but is absolutely sorted out), a subversive way of looking at fame, what we value, and how to kick-start insurrection while looking like the good kid who’d never do anything wrong. If it feels like the room went topsy-turvy, you were warned about Lewis Carroll’s famous children’s tale, its psychedelic metaphor and concepts. It’s whimsical, until you look closer. Looking closer, it’s surreal. Looking even closer, well, you, too, are through the looking glass.

What started out innocently — and has nothing (and everything) to do with this story of The Pledge — is classic HWA; which is to say, how the boys in the band came to be the boys in this particular band.

Neal Casal the solo artist originally signed to major label hipster outpost Zoo for Fade Away Diamond Time in 1994. He subsequently served as a journeyman songwriter/guitarist/photographer working with Tift Merritt, producer Jim Scott, acclaimed slide/lap steeler Greg Leisz, and Tom Petty’s Heartbreaker Benmont Tench; went on to play with Ryan Adams’ Cardinals, then The Chris Robinson Brotherhood, as well as working with Phil Lesh on the Dead & Company projects, even creating the instrumental music for the Grateful Dead’s recent Fare Thee Well shows, Circles Around The Sun.


The fluid guitarist with a black belt in tone and the ability to know when to twirl, when to hang onto a single note, and when to be atmospheric, befriended a Tulsa kid named Jesse Aycock, then in junior high school. Aycock, growing up in the historically rich musical environs of Tulsa that gave the world Leon Russell, J.J. Cale, Bob Wills, Mad Dogs & Englishmen, Shelter Records, and Flaming Lips, was also a songwriter/player — and to distinguish himself in a town of musicos, learned slide. He also reached out to his influences, and found himself as a teenager emailing with Casal, then hanging with his hero when Adams’ tour had a day off in Tulsa, ultimately hiring the surfer/songwriter/guitarist to play on his solo record. Together, they are a 1-2 KO punch. Aycock’s lap steel evoking David Lindley tangles in Casal’s silvery or serpentine solos with undulating muscularity.

Duane Trucks, nephew of Butch, brother of Derek, grew up as part of The Allman Brothers extended family, was knocking out gigs, playing with Colonel Bruce Hampton’s Pharoah Gummit and his own Flannel Church.

With Trucks’ precise timing and ability to hit hard and creatively, his name drifted to Schools — and before long, the youngest member of the Hard Working Americans was playing with Widespread Panic.

Meanwhile, somewhere in Colorado, Staehly was watching Great American Taxi’s schedule thinning, as bandmate Vince Herman was getting more active with jam institution Leftover Salmon. Taxi had backed Snider on a Jerry Jeff Walker tribute project, and Staehly saw some room to help Snider with his business. Suddenly East Nashville’s poet laureate had a like-minded soul involved as a day-to-day manager under Burt Stein’s wing at Gold Mountain Entertainment. Not unlike peer-topeer counseling, the pair started dreaming out loud — and the gig in the Napa Vineyard with Schools materialized. Not just materialized, but crystalized.

The folkie with the penchant for noisy, elbows ’n’ chunky acoustic-driven band gigs was working with a musician whose skills matched his own writing acumen. For Snider, whose greatest off-time pleasure is hanging out at jam gigs, being one of the people, windows flew open, and his already too vivid imagination fired on even more cylinders.

And there was more magic — or luck. Marveling, Staehly recalls reaching out to players. “I remember sending an email to Neal: ‘Hey, you don’t know me, but I work with Todd Snider. We’re doing this project with Dave Schools. Would you be interested?’ He sent me his phone number.”

As the unlikely band fell together, people of similar aesthetics were meeting at Bob Weir’s studio — and a good time was had by all. “Down To The Well” from their eponymous debut got picked up by Chicago powerhouse WXRT-FM; a buzz was building. So the band went to summer camp in the middle of the winter, traveling to a dozen cities, playing musical catch, and having a lot of laughs.

For veterans like Casal, Schools, and Staehly, the chemistry was more undeniable. It was the sort of thing they had enough experience to realize rarely happens, especially after you’d done the road long enough to have all the “wow” and wonder knocked out of you. If they’d all had moments of intense adulation, acclaim, and — in their respective circles — fame, this was different.

It also came with — and reflected — an ethos that drives both the hippie songwriter and the jam band bass player who rides wildly melodic lines in shaping his bands’ rhythmic skeleton. Staehly, whose keyboards are “the glue or a pillow the melody instruments sit on top of,” explains that as they were sorting out the musicians, skill and talent were important, but there was something else, too.

“There was between Todd, David, and I this level of kindness and giving,” he continues. “In talking to Todd, he wanted kindness to be something that permeated this project. There was an idea everyone was here to serve the songs and play their guts out — and I’ve not seen one person who phones in a song, let alone a set.

“There’s no faking it with this bunch. These guys are all playing for their life. There’s a certain level of intelligence and sensitivity, good listeners as musicians — and also as songwriters, which just about everyone involved is as well.”


Yes, Virginia, you can have a band of worldclass players, songwriters who’ve made their own records, folks who’ve toured with phalanxes of Prevost buses and five-star hotels — and have everything work out fine. Ego? No. Passion? Yes. Common goals? Why not? Especially when you’re hitting on all cylinders, and even when the songs aren’t quite done.

“It was a foreign place in a very cold time,” Casal recalls of Rest In Chaos’ origin. “Who goes into a studio with nothing? But we were so excited about being a band and how well it was going, just the response we were getting. And it was working at a level we never worked at before. … So we went for it, and it went down like lightning.

“Young bands do it — running on euphoria energy. But this was collective experience and knowing we’d get through it. There was a certain vitality to it. That energy that came forth? We couldn’t make it up, and those songs are odd, but they didn’t just happen.”

Odd, indeed. Form defies convention. Time signatures change. Songs build, surge, recede. In some cases, well, the lyrics are lumpy, and odd, and polaroid-y. As Staehly explains, “It’s a testament to the spirit of this thing: If it’s high art, they’re in. Everything else is secondary. It’s all about the creativity — and no focus on what we’re gonna get on the radio.”

And so, the Hard Working Americans — fresh off 10 dates, barely past the honeymoon stage of swinging around a collection of obscure covers like they’re monkey bars — head into the studio to see what an album of their own songs might sound like. With plenty of musical muscle, warmed up from the shows and the chemistry, what they didn’t have in finished songs might not matter.

Todd Snider, the ersatz front man, had been trying to make a solo album that wasn’t quite working. He also had a collection of poems, deeply personal bits of his life that had been committed to notebooks. Emboldened by the thrust of being the singer in a band instead of shouldering the whole enterprise, he brought his pieces of life, reflections, and studies to the studio.

Dave Schools knew what they had. “When Todd and I talked at the beginning, it was the story of the rebel as hero, the story of Elvis, who was fanning the flames of eroticism and the generation gap. It led to a room of people who don’t fancy that notion, so they ask, ‘How do we defuse the rebel?’ Enter Manson, and now the rebel is an antihero.”

Schools stops, making sure the writer is keeping up, following the evolution of a concept the band didn’t even truly have during the recording. “Of course, look what happened. They now needed to geld the rebel, and they came up with the Fonz; that rebel-seeming-guy the parents can all love. Suddenly, he says, ‘Ayyyyyyyyy,’ and the threat of the cool guy is completely neutered.”

Schools pauses again. Leaning across a table in the corner of a downtown hotel, he whispers almost conspiratorially, “It’s absurd, the whole thing. And the final act in this cycle is for the Hard Working Americans to return music and thought to absurdity — because when absurdity becomes normal, there’s a need for something even more absurd. The train wreck is walking the fine line between reality and reality TV; you know, wrestling is real, the Moon Walk is fake — and a former Olympic hero becomes a woman!

“Isn’t the truth the most absurd of all? So the guy in the maelstrom of absurdity, yelling the truth? That’s an even deeper level. That’s when it all starts to get real again — because what is more out there than honesty at this point?”

And The Blind Lemon Pledge?

“The concept went a lot of ways: a board game, the Rothschilds’ impact on monetary systems, shadow governments — and there’s a layer that’s the dissolution of his marriage. And his family.

“Todd’s smart; he studies a lot of things, pays attention, digs deeper than most people. It’s all in there.”

Memorial Day. The sun is sinking, but the mercury refuses to secede its place north of 90 on a thermometer behind Acme Seed & Feed. The block out front has been closed down all day for a celebration that includes Sam Bush, Leftover Salmon — and yes, Hard Working Americans.

All day, texts have been going back and forth about whether the show will go on. The night before, Snider had been seized by seizures — something the admittedly free-spirited, free-imbibing/toking, nondrinking songwriter had never experienced. Wait and see is all that can be done, and Snider, who’s rocked New York City, Chicago, and various spots between, is focused to finish HWA’s triumphant return to his hometown.

A bit fragile stepping off the bus, face more grey than fleshy, he wears his signature flower- adorned fedora like a helmet against bad vibes. His clothes hang lank off his rangy body — and his feet, like always, are bare. Holding his energy in, he waits, watches. And then, he — along with his bandmates — take the stage. If the first notes are wobbly and Snider seems to be seeking his balance, the music swells around him, bolsters and lifts him. By the time he reaches Hayes Carll’s street hustle — “I’m like James Brown, only white and taller, all I wanna do is stomp and holler” — Snider is transformed.

Swagger be thy name, and stompage be thy game. Reining in his traditional raps, Snider focuses on the undulations rolling off the wicked fat rhythm section — and moves to the side for the spiraling and twining guitar parts that rise like snakes and twist around the melodies and each other intuitively.

He is a carny, canny in the ways of the musical sideshow. He draws the sunburned, buzzed, and wilting crowd into the playing — moving Brentwood yuppies with $3,000 purses and crisp gauze dresses and thick-waisted late middle- aged men gawking at the braless, tattooed hippie girls into pavilions of song architecture they might not cognitively recognize, but are somehow moving along to.

To call the show a triumph is redundant. Snider is resplendent as the pace quickens and the musicality grows. Smiling like a wino swaddled in the heart of Saturday night, he savors the taunt in “Half-Assed Moses” chorus, “You’re gonna need my help some day” as Casal’s electric solo flies and Aycock’s slide drives down into the figure, Truck’s slams into the beat like a wrecking ball.

They all pile on with gusto, then the churning culminates into an almost foreboding take on Guy Clark’s “High Price of Inspiration.” It’s an austere arrangement, stark and haunted, as much a reckoning as a cautionary tale.

Yes, the band will come back and revel through Chuck Berry’s “School Days,” all piss, sweat, and aplomb. But like a sock hop after a whiff of Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, the emotional pivot has already happened — and this was just feel good whipped cream and a cherry on something far more formidable.

On the bus, after the crowd dispersed, Snider sat in the after-show daze of giving it all away. Thoughtful, wrung out, he wanted to talk about the band, the aborted solo album whose bones were surrendered to make Rest In Chaos, his emergence as a cocky front man who can shuck, jive, stomp, and yes, holler.

“It’s all kind of a blur,” he concedes about the show’s thrust and his place as one guy on that stage. “But I really love the job of being that conduit. I’ve never been in a band that works so hard and rehearses like this. And they really want to know what the songs are about. They talk about the intention behind them.”

He doesn’t miss the irony of being the man behind Peace QueerEast Nashville Skyline, Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables, and The Excitement Plan — all albums long on words, short on jam — fronting this hardcore band. With a big grin, he announces through the exhaustion, “I like letting go. Because I don’t talk and the goal is for people to dance, I love this shit!”

Love it, he does. And he’s good at it. But even more telling is how Schools conjured these songs that consider love and rehab, pernicious gossip, the culture of fame and its corrosive nature, sex selling — and destroying, creativity’s inherent cost and the unbridled elation of playing down-home music full-tilt.

“The poems we used to start, that was a new thing,” Snider says of the initial stuff for the Chaos sessions. “The part of the songs I gravitate to is the part where the person admits the thing. (John) Prine got me interested in that. You have the details, but then you say the thing.

“And Dave was taking out the We’s and the You’s, making it I. So as the song flies by, it’s like 11 songs to me — because all the lines (from all the poems) are from so many different things.”

There’s a preppy-looking guy in a polo shirt on the bus, like a squeaky clean polemic to everyone else. He’s introduced as Todd’s brother; someone explains he’s an agent for Christian bands. In the moment, it’s a non sequitur; the contrast, though, remains.

The next day, Schools considers the songs from the groove up, the fact that they weren’t “done” in the traditional sense — and how he made them “work.” Looking back on the sessions, he marvels, “Todd has that Neil Young Tonight’s The Night thing about him — gather a bunch of musicians, and don’t let them rehearse. Just bring them together — and because he’s Todd, know that they’re really gonna listen. Then see what happens.”

Did the band realize they were inside Snider’s book of poetry, things written to be free of the constraints of Verse/Chorus/Verse/ Bridge/Chorus structure? Schools, the master architect, smiles. “No, I don’t think anyone knew Todd saw these as poems,” he says. “The bulk of the work was to find the melody, find where it felt good.

“It became apparent to me in many ways really quick,” the Kodiak bear of a man continues, almost protectively, “this was very deeply personal for Todd. Some of it was old stuff, and not just someone observing, but someone really working through it. Just like engineers and producers use tools to evoke emotions in a listener, Todd uses the way he sings.”

It’s true. If the funky “Dope Is Dope” is the big fun novelty record inspired by a small town mom’s thinking her touring son’s marijuana stash is heroin — launched by the irrepressible “Dope is dope and you’re high up ON it” chorus — the yearning “Opening Statement” tugs with the realization of one shipwrecked with the knowledge the wreckage is just the beginning. As Casal’s guitar slithers up the track, the raspy howl confesses, “I may never know this road I’m on/ The here and now are gone/ The coming home or the running away/ But you’re going to miss my laugh some day.”

Snider recognizes the people shutting him out don’t understand what they’re losing, which tempers his resolve with sadness. If the unspoken trope on Rest In Chaos is being adrift in one’s life and the hurt of being cut off from the things people believe they’re cut off from, and its undertow — no one’s saying.

Schools will admit tapping Elizabeth Cook, Snider’s co-lightning rod for small town gossip, was intentional. “That tongue twister way the rumor mill grinds every other couple down, I thought, ‘Why not just go right to the heart of [‘Massacre’]?’ I said to Todd, ‘How do you feel about bringing Elizabeth in here to sing this with you?’ Two people who’re basically brother/ sister, but experiencing this pain arm and arm.”

Snider got it, and agreed. What emerges — against the subdued track, lumbering toward the next morning, clinging to whatever shreds of dignity and pledging their friendship to each other in spite of pettiness around them — are two scratchy voices, trying to find absolution for those who don’t consider the human cost. Cook is especially heartbreaking, her gutter alto porous for the truth in the song.

“Here’s Todd and Elizabeth — and what they went through in real time,” Schools marvels. “She has the same process he does: it hurts. It’s not just that it was a pretty part, she knew those words — how it felt to be talked about in town. She brought it; he did, too. Everything you hear, it’s real.”

Hardly what one expects on an album where the slinky love on the run from rehab “It Runs Together” sits near the down on it rock surge of “Throwing Goats” with its chorus of “Shake shake shake” or the sprightly Petty-esque fizz of “Something Else.” Even the moody “Roman Candles” evokes postcoital bliss as much as coping with the ashes after fireworks, knowing everything in its own time.

A week later, sitting on the patio of the Family Wash, the sky turning from bruised purple to night, Snider has come into town to finish talking. He is certifiably proud of the music, the writing, the blistering onstage chemistry. Conversation turns to the guy on the bus, how unlikely he seemed as Snider’s kin. There’s a rueful laugh. “Oh, yeah,” he acknowledges, “my family …”

He talks about years when they refused to speak to him; holidays that came and went without a call; weathering his divorce without their support; a story in The New York Times that sent them scrambling for the hills. Exhaling, he explains, “When things are going well, they have a way of showing up.

“I really ended up being the exact opposite of everything I was raised to be,” he says. “I find the lifestyle off-putting … and I didn’t fit in with my own family. I was into music, and not into Reagan. So I had to let go, because I come with some bells and whistles. I am a flamboyantly fucked up person, and I don’t apologize for it. Some people go, ‘Well, there’s the other side of it.’ But I’ve had the same manager for 10 years, the same agent for that long, too.”

When the revelation hits that some of the songs come from his family dynamic, the profound undertow of Chaos makes a new kind of sense. While Schools admits that tracking was “a tightrope walk — working with the poetry and converting that to songs as Todd was going through his stuff,” making the record was more of an exercise in self-actualization for the front man, who will celebrate his 50th birthday with a show at the Ryman Auditorium on Oct. 7.

Texting Schools as the transcripts are being sorted, it’s obvious there was more to the story than the guy who said, “Basically, I try to create a safe place for artists — where they can let it out. I’m there for them, not some joker with a Brownie camera recording the wreckage of their lives. I’m the one saying, ‘It’s OK to feel all this, to get it all out,’ because having that safe place to unburden yourself as an artist sets you free was letting on.”

The response to the text was almost immediate. “Once you’re my friend, I’m taking the bullet for you,” he begins, when asked about the deeper-masked reality of the lyrics. “Todd and I came from vastly different forms of family dysfunction — and we dealt with it in vastly different ways. But the dysfunction can be the thing that defines you — or absolutely crack you to pieces.

“If you ask me, Todd put himself out on a ledge, and he knows the whole band really got his back.”

In retrospect, Schools’ comment — “Shame is the great destroyer of the moment, and of lives. Festering old cesspools of shame that bubble up can ruin the moment, indeed, that destroys everything” — makes sense. A realist who realizes great art sometimes comes from painful places, Schools was going to fight not only for this band, but for his friend who he believes “is on the verge of the greatest output of his career. The masterworks are coming, not just a bit, but a lot. Think American singer-songwriter recordings, but spoken word, ‘prosetry’ — yes, prose that is poetry.

“I’ve seen it up close,” he continues. “The wheel’s been turning. Rest In Chaos is dark, a hard pill to swallow in some places, but it’s also healing if you listen. And for Todd, it probably removed some blockages that’s been holding back some other material.”

As is the flow with Schools, there’s a pause, then a confidence is shared. “Todd has this death-defying dedication to life and work and putting it all together. He can be so clever and so humorous, then he makes me so sad. And he’s just — there … spilling it all onstage. It’s only rock & roll, but it’s so much more if you’re paying attention.

“I give Todd permission to do anything he wants,” says the veteran bass player who can roll a song with a very deep groove. “I’ve been watching him morph from a folk singer into a front man. Yes, he’s a fan of the band, up there taking it all in when we jam, but he’s also the writer, dreamer, and force making all this come together!

“We’re all witches at the cauldron, and the spell we’re trying to conjure is pretty simple: freedom of expression and reality. Canned perfection and those things people think move product? I’m not the guy. I’ll clutch and fight and struggle with the artist, I’ll go all the way to the edge of the cliff — because I’m not going to let any artist in my protection drown. But I want them to get it out, to relieve the pressure and let it out. It may not taste good, but you do a lot of people a lot of good.

“And that’s really the value of art. Like the blues makes it OK to feel the way you feel, this validates being real.”

Watching Snider onstage pawing at the ground, arms akimbo, wrists jammed onto his hips, it’s obvious: It’s not just catharsis, you can dance to it.

“Dave won my heart,” Snider confesses as the night winds down. “This guy comes in and sees the movie better than I do. He’s read the script more than I have, has a sequence. I spent six years on the poems, and it was time to let another person in.

“I wanna be understood, and a lot of my music was trying to explain my way back home. That ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down’ thing — but then you know there’s no going back."

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