Americana raconteur Todd Snider sounds happy to be back on the road, singing and joking with audiences again. He’s in good spirits on Live: Return of the Storyteller, recorded at various venues across America after the COVID lockdown ended in 2021. Snider delivers his story songs with gusto and tells his shaggy dog tales with mischievous glee. For 19 musical cuts and eight comic monologues (as if there is a clear division between them), the storyteller captures his listener’s hearts and funny bones with narratives about recently dead musicians (John Prine, Neal Casal, Col. Bruce Hampton), confessional anecdotes in which drugs often play a part, and personal life lessons he has learned from being on the road. Snider is clearly glad to be alive and performing in a world that has just recently returned to some level of normalcy.
As the album’s title indicates, this is not Snider’s first time documenting his ability to spin yarns as well as offer up songs. The new record is not exactly a sequel to 2011’s The Storyteller, where he first highlighted his spiels. Nor is this one his first live record; it’s his third. The stuff on Live: Return of the Storyteller features material from his first album, his 1994 debut Songs for the Daily Planet, up to his most recent one, 2021’s First Agnostic Church of Hope and Wonder, peppered with selections from his entire career. As such, the double-LP collection serves as a good primer for those unfamiliar with his work and a stimulating re-introduction for those curious to hear what he has been up to for all those years.
Snider’s voice is raspier than it was when he was younger. That gives him the aura of authenticity as he offers narratives from the past when the world seemed simpler. Snider directly addresses the changes that have happened on cuts such as “Just Like Overnight”: “Seems like day after day / Goes by like nothing is ever gonna change / But just like overnight / It’s like it ain’t never gonna be the same.” He lists everything from smoking cigarettes on airplanes to using pay telephones to point out the small differences that indicate how the more things alter superficially, the greater the consequences are of them being essentially the same. Things may or may not be getting better. Who knows?
Snider’s not a preacher. He tells affectionately funny stories about such people who have mistaken him for a homeless fellow and tried to help him. Snider is an entertainer; he’s not trying to elevate his audiences as much as make them think and laugh. He goes for the funny bone with a purpose. His songs and stories suggest the importance of empathy. Our clothes may mark our social status. Our wealth or lack of it may inform how others treat us. Luck may have a role more significant than hard work in determining how others see us, but not in truly defining who we are.
Live: Return of the Storyteller begins with a “Big Finish” and ends with an “Opening Statement”. Snider knows that life is one big circle game. Pick a spot and spin the wheel. One can start playing the album on any track and join him on the journey to the center of his mind, a place we can all relax, ponder and enjoy.