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Todd Snider feels at home

Gruene Hall, New Braunfels, Texas, May 4, 2007

Reviewed by Brian T. Atkinson

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Todd Snider loves his neighborhood. That's no secret. The Portland, Ore. native named an album after it (2004's "East Nashville Skyline"), has written songs about it (most notably, "From a Rooftop," a loving spoken-word portrait on his recent Oh Boy rarities collection) and even talks about it in concert every chance he gets.

He wasted no time tonight. "It's not Nashville like you think - we don't necessarily use the most clever lines in our songs," Snider said early in the show, apropos of nothing. "If you're in Nashville, come visit us on the east side. We'll steel your hearts - and your lawnmowers."

Fair enough. But before he settled down in Tennessee's more progressive pocket, Snider cut his teeth gigging around the Texas roadhouse circuit. Gruene Hall - which bills itself as "Texas' Oldest Dance Hall" - might be the best known on that loop. It's a modest cash-only joint straight out of 1942. Smoke any old place and keep the Lone Star longnecks coming.

Snider clearly feels at home here, and the outlaw-on-a-bender atmosphere suits him well. (In fact, this is something of a homecoming - Snider set his sites on becoming a songwriter after seeing Jerry Jeff Walker perform at Gruene Hall in the 1980s.) After all, he's spent almost two decades on the road working to become its mirror image.

As always, Snider's 100-minute set is all fast talk and loose picking. Older gems like "Tension" and "Easy Money" stand up well against newer material like "Just Like Old Times" and "All That Matters." It's immediately evident that his greatest gift might be the ability to temper left-hook political and social commentary with court-jester levity.

"People say my new songs are pretty opinionated," Snider said while introducing a sharp reading of "The Devil You Know," the title track to his most recent release. "I'm not singing this to change your mind. I'm singing these words because they rhyme."

"Man, the way things are, they just don't seem right/We ain't building bridges, we're just training thugs," he sang. "All the white people talking about the hope and the light/There ain't no hope in Sam Levy, just guns and drugs." The blue-collar anthem best shows his transition from witty satirist to keen-eyed journalist.

Of course, Snider obliges with a sing-along of his novelty hit "Beer Run." Shame that some - in particular this evening, a boozy gang of coeds stage left - only seem to know him from that. More deep-browed offerings such as "Play a Train Song" or "Ballad of the Kingsmen" are where he really shines as a songwriter.

Come to think of it, "Beer Run" fits neatly in that category as well. Looking past those who slur through the too-catchy chorus ("B, double-E, double-R-U-N/Beer run"), Snider manages to sneak in a top-flight story song underneath the frat boy appeal.