Photo: Jay Blakesberg

Hard Working Americans Conjure Vintage Vibes at the Fillmore

The Fillmore is elevated into its higher realm as a transformative sonic temple of sound and light.
The Mother Hips

Weekend shows at the Fillmore have a long and storied tradition of offering the best that rock has to offer. The incomparable venue hosted an ongoing string of such performances in its original heyday in the ’60s, with many of those artists now residing in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The period after the venue re-opened in 1994 following a five-year closure due to the 1989 San Francisco earthquake was a fertile one as well. Things aren’t quite the same anymore however. The Fillmore just doesn’t host as many shows these days due to a variety of factors, making that fleeting chance at bliss a rarer opportunity.

But when the circumstances align with the right band at the right time, there’s still no other indoor venue that can match the magic of the Fillmore. There’s something about the Fillmore’s timeless vibe, due to all the rock history that’s taken place in these hallowed halls. Then there’s the fantastic sound and fan-friendly layout that always allows for elbow room. But the magic requires a band that gets it and knows how to tap into it. Hard Working Americans bring this type of pedigree to the stage, although their live power isn’t readily apparent on their two albums.

The band features bassist Dave Schools and drummer Duane Trucks, the rhythm section for Widespread Panic, as well as lead guitarist Neal Casal from the Chris Robinson Brotherhood. That unit right there figures to make a formidable power trio. They hooked up with their pal Todd Snider, an enigmatic singer/songwriter from Nashville who says he found himself in a collision “between the jamband thing and the Americana thing”. Hard Working Americans cut an album of covers in 2014 and then a new one of original tunes released this spring where that collision yielded some promising results. But as with most jambands, the albums only hint at their real live power.

But first, there’s another Fillmore tradition to abide by and that’s having an opening band that’s worth showing up for. This tradition is upheld in fine fashion by the Mother Hips, a Bay Area stalwart for over 20 years. Guitarists Tim Bluhm and Greg Loiacono have kept the “California Soul” psyche-rock band going through thick and thin, having headlined the Fillmore a number of times over the years although it’s been awhile. Bluhm makes note of this after a few songs, saying how stoked they are to be back and asking the sizable crowd if they are, too.

The audience responds with a “Confirmation of Love”, like the title of the song the Mother Hips had rocked out shortly beforehand. “White Falcon Fuzz” then acknowledges the concept of keeping a band going against the odds, through the years and the Hips sound so good here. They recently played Terrapin Crossroads in San Rafael, a classy venue all the way, but even the Grate Room there can’t match the acoustics of the Fillmore and thus this set takes the assembled higher.

Many memories of epic nights past and/or musings on the present and future of rock’s metaphysical power can flood one’s consciousness during a set break at the Fillmore. Here it’s a passage from an unattributed review on the Fillmore’s website of Hard Working Americans’ new album, Rest in Chaos that comes to mind:

Let me explain what it’s like to summarize Rest in Chaos. What you have here is, in the first place, the book of Genesis as deftly reconceived by Todd Snider who has been inhabited by a spirit resembling Philip K. Dick. The rest of the Hard Working Americans are under the direction (or perhaps in the thrall) of an older wiser Jimi Hendrix and a Frank Zappa no less exacting than he was when he departed. It’s rock ’n’ roll music, past, present and future, and that’s no dream, it’s just a fact. There are moments here when the walls of Babel might be falling, there are moments when they are reinvented and every time you try to pin it down, it shows you something else…

This could also serve as a fairly apt description for what happens at the Fillmore on any given night when everything clicks, and the connection with legendary Bay Area science fiction writer Philip K. Dick is particularly intriguing. Dick was a believer in the power of music and by the end of his career was even writing modern day fiction that envisioned rock music as a subversive force for revolution against the growing “Big Brother” oppression of government (see Radio Free Albemuth). Most in attendance know that Hard Working Americans bring that classic rock flavor to the stage, but Snider is more of a wildcard. He soon shows he’s got great frontman skills, as he often moves to sort of conducting the band or just dancing along in a shamanistic manner.

“Welcome aboard our campaign of chaos,” Snider says, like a train conductor leading the audience on a metaphysical musical journey to a higher place. “Stomp and Holler” gets that locomotive rolling as Snider leads the band through a raucous romp featuring some bluesy slide work from second guitarist Jesse Aycock. Keyboardist Chad Staehly is strong here, too, as it becomes readily apparent that this band is no mere side project but has genuine chemistry and lots of it. This becomes further apparent during a mega jam on “Down to the Well”, where Schools and Trucks conjure an incendiary groove and Casal lays down some scintillating slide work of his own as the jamrock x-factor kicks in with electrifying glory.

Snider leads the band on a bluesy gospel-tinged ritual of sorts on “Roman Candles”, singing of shooting them off when in Rome so “that way nobody thinks you’re crazy”. The concept of how one’s own view on consciousness might differ with consensus reality fits right in with the Philip K. Dick theme, for Dick was always probing the nature of reality. Snider appears to have been around the metaphysical block a few times himself and seems like he could be a character in one of Dick’s novels come to life. A deep bluesy jam that recalls the Doors suddenly morphs into a “Born to Be Wild” jam and the band is rocking down the metaphysical highway once more.

As the show proceeds, Hard Working Americans continue to throw down monster hose jams where these tone scientists connect on deep flowing grooves that seem to leave reality behind as the Fillmore is elevated into its higher realm as a transformative sonic temple of sound and light. It becomes clear that these guys are not just bringing this sound to the Fillmore, but have the Fillmore vibe deep in their musical DNA thanks to the influence of the good ol’ Grateful Dead. Watching a band like this deliver the goods at the Fillmore is always a special treat and so it is as this night takes on that classic aura.

As the set steams toward its conclusion, Snider weaves a tale of being down and out and, raised on folk music, thinking he can find the answer to his problems “blowing in the wind”. But the wind tells him nothing and his lament is only relieved when a car drives up with the rest of the band inside. “Where ya going?” Schools asks. “I dunno, where you going?” Snider replies. “I dunno either, but we’re all in this together”, comes the answer and the band is born (with Trucks as “the engine”), an apocryphal tale of how rock ‘n’ roll can bring lost souls together for a higher purpose to better humanity by helping raise our collective vibration.

Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh elucidated this very concept in his illuminating 2005 biography Searching for the Sound when he wrote of the band’s formative years developing their musical style around the Bay Area and at the Fillmore:

The fervent belief we shared then, and that perseveres today, is that the energy liberated by this combination of music and ecstatic dancing is somehow making the world better, or at least holding the line against the depredations of entropy and ignorance… At the end, we had become shamans helping to channel the transcendent into our mundane lives and those of our listeners. We felt… privileged to be at the arrow’s point of human evolution, and from that standpoint, everything was possible.

For those who believe in the metaphysical power of rock ‘n’ roll, those liberating transcendent energies are still out there and the direction of human evolution is therefore still in play. There are always skeptics arguing that rock is dead, but the fact of the matter is that there’s still a wide array of bands generating these forces in 2016. Hard Working Americans are one of these bands, offering such liberation in vintage style. The only thing stopping Snider and company from continuing their surge is the fact that several of the band members are also in other such bands. But too much is never enough against “the forces of Old and Evil”, as Hunter S. Thompson once described the foe of rock’s counterculture revolution. The Hard Working Americans’ “Campaign of Chaos” therefore assists the insurgency in a most timely manner.