On January 17th, 2009 I drove through the ice and snow out to Wakefield, Quebec to The Black Sheep (of course), a mystical, magical live venue that somehow thrives in a small village (population: roughly 2,000) with a strategy of consistently booking fantastic music.
But of course they thrive (you are probably thinking), if they consistently book fantastic music. Which indicates that either you don’t know much about live music in small towns or you are thinking about an entirely different kind of “fantastic music”.
What I mean is this: Paul Symes books musicians that are so good that they could shut down most venues in cities a hundred times bigger. Musicians playing music good enough to appeal to those that have long ago worked their way past Top 40 and radio staples, music good enough to appeal to people that listen so hard that they are inevitably drawn to niche genres and the even nichier musicians that reside within them. Music that appeals to musicians. And we all know that musicians don’t go out to see live music very much. Especially if there’s a cover charge. And yet somehow, some way, The Black Sheep thrives, thank gawd.
Anyway, I was there on this night to see Bob Wiseman, who had brought with him two other musicians: Marianne Dissard and Bob Snider. I assume you are bracing for a few paragraphs of gushing worship-like lauding of the great Bob Wiseman but this time I will spare you, other than to report that he was brilliant as per usual. No, this time I want to focus on Bob Snider, with apologies to Ms. Dissard, who’s involvement in the evening’s entertainment has not survived in my memory.
If I’m not mistaken, Bob Wiseman actually “discovered” Bob Snider while the latter was busking in Toronto. If so, then I extend further lauds Bob’s way. Regardless, kudos to Bob Wiseman for bringing the other Bob along with him on tour and (in this case anyway) introducing him to a packed house.
I suspect this was the first time I heard Bob Snider* – for sure my first time seeing him he was playing an opening set at The Black Sheep so this must have been it. Either way, I can tell you with certainty that he grabbed me from the soundcheck (yes, the soundcheck) and held me until he closed the set by genuinely and humbly thanking us all for listening.
When Bob sat on a stool and started plucking away at his cheap guitar for his soundcheck I must say I was struck with the thought that he was obviously a busker. He had a street look that I recognized from my teenage years when I slept in more than my share of hostels and homeless shelters, a guitar that sounded like it came from St. Vincent de Paul, a right hand picking style that looked and sounded like an Alan Lomax field recording, and a voice that reminded me of windup phonograph players spinning scratchy 78rpm records.
I gotta admit, at first glance Snider was easy to dismiss. Like I heard him say in an interview one time, when he stands on the sidewalk busking he feels invisible, like a natural part of the scenery. But then he starts singing…
…And oh, the songs! Each one was a gem, innate-sounding packages of brilliance that evolve from clever novelty songs into masterpieces of simplicity with every irresistible rhyme. I can’t remember exactly the deal, but he started his soundcheck normally enough before his “check…check…check”s and unmusical test strums miraculously took shape and morphed, emerging as a song about soundchecking. How had it taken this long for someone to do something so obvious and wonderful? But a listen to Bob Snider soon reveals that everything that comes out of his mouth sounds both obvious and wonderful. Heck, every single rhyme he makes (and he makes many) falls under the same two categories: obvious and wonderful. And you could easily add “clever” to the list if you’d like.
Check out the layers of rhyme in these lines from You:
You make me feel like a kid,
The way I did before I knew
About the war between the sexes
The subject of this exercise is you
Or the song What an Idiot He Is. The title itself is another amazing little rhyme that Snider develops into a much improved version of Alley Oop.
Or Parkette, a ninety-second tale of how the creek he and his childhood friends always played at got turned into a park that nobody ever used, sung in delicious rhymes with not a single word wasted. And – like most of his songs – the moment the story is told the piece ends. No frivolous chorus-repeats for Bob Snider, no epilogue verse or dexterous key change required; just tell the story and get the hell out of there. Like his positively brilliant instructional on how to build a fence, a song that he calls How to Build a Fence. No-nonsense is this man’s middle name.
As a songwriter Bob has a lot in common with another Snider: Todd, who I also saw once in that very same bar no doubt sitting on the very same stool, and who likewise made this very same heart of mine nearly explode in glee. Clearly Todd Snider is another artist so astoundingly good he could only be booked at a place like The Black Sheep. Or Austin City Limits. Or Bonnaroo. Hopefully we’ll see both of the Bobs booked into those venues someday too.
*It wasn’t. I recently noticed that he opened a John Hammond show I saw at Barrymore’s a full thirteen years before this. I don’t remember anything about him from that night, not a single thing. I guess one of us must have learned a thing or two in all that time.