The received rock wisdom is that the aim of ’70s punk was to kill bloated super-groups like Emerson, Lake and Palmer (that’s one group, not three) and wipe-out self-indulgent hippies. Yet throughout the ’80s the super-group persisted with alacrity, as the yuppies tried to out-run the hippies to the soundtrack of The Power Station and Mike and the Mechanics. Surprisingly, hippies turned out to be a tenacious breed but were fond of indulging in nostalgia, so early super-groups re-formed for mega-bucks to play the Royal Albert Hall. So much for punk – an entirely unconvincing result.
Super-groups may come and go, but there are always hard working Americans. No one has yet called their super-group “Hard Working Musicians” because the 9-to-5’ers would not accept this as an accurate representation; remember that musicians get paid to “play” on stage, and often have the benefit of a long lie-in the next morning, even if it is on a tour bus. Being in a super-group is also usually kind of a part-time gig; each of the band members typically have other (more full-time) fish to fry in different bands or solo careers; here, for example, Neal Casal is on secondment from the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, having previously been a member of the Cardinals with Ryan Adams, as well as having put out some fine solo records. Other members of the band include Dave Schools (Widespread Panic), Chad Staehly (Great American Taxi), Duane Trucks (The Quark Alliance), and for the tour, singer-songwriter Jesse Aycock.
Hard Working Americans are not only a super-group, but fronted by a self-proclaimed hippie, Todd Snider. Their latest release is a live album, a relatively quick follow-up only nine months after their debut studio record, the type of release also (allegedly) generally detested by punks for being unnecessarily indulgent (Frampton Comes Alive! was frequently cited as a target). This live album is called The First Waltz in clear allusion to the Band’s live documentary film/album The Last Waltz. It can easily and flippantly be said that The Last Waltz was full of hippies caterwauling on stage, but despite this, mainly thanks to The Band and not the super-star guests, it’s one of the greatest rock and roll films/soundtracks ever made. By making such a bold reference to The Last Waltz, The First Waltz has a lot to live up to.
The format of The First Waltz is certainly ambitious, combining CD and DVD with some great “pop-out” packaging. The CD’s twelve tracks show off a “jam band” approach, fine if this is your kind of thing, although some may struggle with long noodling on a theme (note: it’s rare to hear members of a jam-band using a corporate phrase like “time is money” non-ironically. However this phrase is quite fitting for what they do; making money through extending music, sometimes to the limits of a listener’s endurance, and stretching the limits of time).
Hard Working Americans’ self-titled studio album was made up entirely of covers, and nine of these songs make up the live CD. PopMatters’ review of the studio album took the position that some of the songs (in particular the quieter ones) were a stretch for Snider’s voice, and here in concert his voice can be raspy, but it does seem to fit the more immediate raw sense of occasion, with powerful, impassioned versions of Frankie Miller’s “Blackland Farmer” and Will Kimbrough’s “Another Train”. The audience join in for a sing-a-long on the peace-heavy “I Don’t Have A Gun” (Kimbrough/Womack) and the charismatic “Straight To Hell” (Kevn Kinney) which seems to be appreciated by Snider. The guitar solo for “The Mountain Song” twists and turns like a long, stoned, charmingly persuasive conversation between Jerry Garcia and Mountain Girl. Still, Casal knows how long is long enough and he has a canny knack of finishing his extended guitar solos before they become tedious.
There are three new tracks for the live CD, “Mission Accomplished” (a low, growling rumble with some great guitar work), “Guaranteed” (a brooding meditation on life as an outsider) and a new studio track with Rosanne Cash, a cover of Leigh and Clark’s country ballad “Come From The Heart”, which is well delivered.
Just like The Last Waltz, the film element of The First Waltz is not a straight visual replication of the contents of the CD, but is more in the style of a documentary, with mixed studio and concert footage. The film starts off with Snider’s voiceover about the origins of the group’s name; he explains that some would not necessarily consider him particularly American or even hard-working, but still, it was time to take the flag back for the hippies. It’s an endearingly self-depreciating start to what is an entertaining film, from the glitter-balled studio version of “Wrecking Ball” to the incendiary live version of “Another Train/Working Man Blues”. “Stomp And Holler”, interpreted with raucous, redneck joy, ambitiously switches between concert and on-the-road footage as well as sections of studio film, enhancing the excitement. The interviews with the band are interesting, and Neal Casal in particular is an insightful interviewee as well as a highly gifted guitarist. Overall however, depending on your age, it could be that the technicalities of a “jam band” are better enjoyed from an armchair than on one’s weary feet.
Snider and gang certainly deliver in concert, and The First Waltz deserved a release on this basis alone, expanding the story of what was almost a previously unexplained debut. It’s not such a “classic” as The Last Waltz, but most rock fans should find something on here which interests or engages them. As a concept, punks may shudder in horror, but any notion of original punk ethics surely died a death when the Sex Pistols re-formed for filthy lucre. These days it’s a free-for-all, and running with any tribe, even a hard working one, seems more than a useless idea.