Todd Snider's latest, and the reanimation of New Riders of the Purple Sage


Reading the rave reviews of Todd Snider’s latest, The Excitement Plan (Yep Roc), is sure to bring a smile to those who have followed the wise-ass singer-songwriter since his early days in Central Texas. We’ve known all along that he’s the equal to John Prine, Tom Waits, or Robert Earl Keen, yet it seems like a few are just discovering Snider’s ability to pen tunes both incisive and wry.

The Excitement Plan, his first for Yep Roc, had a bigger budget than his last couple of efforts, which means Don Was, producer for the stars, is on board along with top studio vets like Greg Leisz and Jim Keltner. It’s a standard, strong collection of Snider compositions, full of finely drawn oddballs and whimsical observations of the absurdities of our day.

“America’s Favorite Pastime” retells the story of Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Doc Ellis, who purportedly threw a no-hitter while on LSD. “Don’t Tempt Me” is a delightful, off-kilter duet with Loretta Lynn. The hooky “Bring ‘Em Home” might be a radio hit if Snider actually got played on the radio. “I’m broke as the Ten Commandments and sometimes I’m harder to follow,” he quips on “Money, Compliments, Publicity.” One can only wish that more singer-songwriter types could display that sort of bald-faced honesty.

The reformed, reconfigured New Riders of the Purple Sage have been through Austin a couple of times in the past year or so, and thrilled the local Deadhead contingent with lengthy sets of signature psychedelic country rock. (For those that don’t know, Jerry Garcia was a driving force in the original band’s beginnings.)

Resurrected in 2005, original members David Nelson and Buddy Cage – joined by longtime Hot Tuna guitarist Michael Falzarano, bassist Ronnie Penque, and drummer Johnny Markowski – have just issued Where I Come From (Woodstock), their first disc of new music in 20 years. With seven of the disc’s 12 tunes co-written by Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, it’s a set that’ll tickle fans. At nearly 75 minutes you get your money’s worth too, offering a taste of what the new NRPS does in concert: chicken- fried jams like the infectious “Higher” and “Ghost Train Blues.” While not for everyone, Where I Come From is a welcome addition to the Riders canon.

Oh, and if you’re interested in seeing NRPS in their original configuration (yes, with Jerry), check out Fillmore: The Last Days (Rhino). Issued for the first time on DVD, it’s a curious look at the 1971 closing of the legendary San Francisco venue run by Bill Graham. More a Graham character study than an honest-to-god concert film, it owes a great deal to the Woodstock movie I wrote about last week, with its multiple split screens and jumpy editing.

Besides NRPS, it features the cream of the 1970s Bay area scene, including Santana, the Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and lesser-knowns like Lamb and Cold Blood. While not as enrapturing as the Woodstock flick and dated in spots, Fillmore is a curious freeze frame of the early 1970s music business, which Graham prophetically noticed was in decline.

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Todd Snider, New Riders of the Purple Sage

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