The unpredictable Bob Schneider at Belly Up Aspen
You never know what you’re going to get with a Bob Schneider show. The Austin, Texas-based singer and songwriter has a rare shape-shifting talent that has produced boot-stomping Texas rock and infectious pop songs along with earnest, stripped-down acoustic folk. In all, the 48-year-old has written more than 1,500 songs, and in concert he plays spontaneous and unpredictable sets that might include any of them.
His show this weekend at Belly Up is billed as an acoustic evening with fellow Texan troubadour Hayes Carll. So it might seem safe to assume Schneider will leave his fratty, sing-along anthems behind and take it slow instead, showcasing the unplugged charm of his most recent album, “Burden of Proof.” Not so fast, he says.
“It is acoustic, but it’ll be all over the place musically,” Schneider said from a tire shop in Austin, where he awaited a car repair. “It jumps from genre to genre. It’s entertaining. It’s not just one thing the whole time. For me, my attention span isn’t really built for that sort of show.”
You need to stay on your toes listening to Schneider. Heedless of creative boundaries, on a single album or in one night on stage he might swing from country rock to auto-tune pop to bare-bones folk — with touches of stand-up between, showing off his wry sense of humor. Schneider and Carll are both known for their biting wit and on-stage repartee as well as their versatile musicianship.
“Every night is different,” Schneider said. “I just assess the crowd and play off their energy. If they’re a quiet, listening audience, I’ll tend to do more beautiful, slow stuff. If they’re all amped up and looking to dance, I can do that. It really depends on the audience and also my mood. (In Aspen) I’ll probably be suffering from some kind of altitude sickness, so who knows how I’ll be feeling by the time I get on stage?”
On last year’s “Burden of Proof,” Schneider penned spare, acoustic compositions. Melancholy, mostly slow and often dark, the record has a cinematic quality to it, with Schneider’s unadorned voice often accompanied by string arrangements from the Tosca String Quartet. Other than the upbeat radio-friendly single “Unpromised Land,” it’s a quiet and sophisticated record — perhaps a surprise to fans who know Schneider best for his party-starting anthems like “The Assknocker” and “Tarantula.”
The elegant and downbeat “Burden of Proof” songs range from the Leonard Cohen-styled “Digging for Icicles” to the mournful “Wish the Wind Would Blow Me” and a take on “Tomorrow” from “The Wizard of Oz” that’s akin to a Sad Kermit cover.
“I’ve always thought songs that are super-saccharine and sweet and upbeat sound better when they’re slowed down and given the melancholy treatment,” Schneider said of the cover. “I like the juxtaposition of what the music should be versus what the lyrical content is.”
Schneider is at his best when he’s following that subversive songwriting road map. That skill, along with his prolific output and his tireless touring schedule, has helped make him one of Austin’s best-loved performers.
Over the past 14 years, Schneider has been on a strict songwriting regimen, finishing at least one song per week. The disciplined creative schedule began on a three-week tour around 2000, when Schneider and bandmates played a songwriting game, in which they chose a daily phrase and then each wrote a song using it and played their new creations for the other members. After the tour ended and the band members went their separate ways, it morphed into a song-a-week plan, with the participants sending songs to one another weekly.
Schneider’s steady creative output has become the stuff of legend. What makes it onto his albums is a small fraction of what he’s recorded. But later this year, he’s planning to share what’s come out of the weekly songwriting exercise with his fans. Tentatively titled “The Demo Bible,” the release will include nearly 1,000 recordings from his weekly writing sessions, along with a book of lyrics. He’s planning to put it out before year’s end.
Schneider discovers songs as he writes them, he says, often tooling around with instruments he’s no expert on — a marimba, a mandolin, a stand-up bass — to find a fitting sound for what’s in his head.
“It feels like archaeology to me,” he said. “When you’re writing a song, you’re like, ‘I know there are some bones here, but I don’t know what it is, so I’ll keep digging.’ You start piecing it together, and you’re like, ‘This is a sea turtle!’ or ‘This is a woolly mammoth!’ You don’t know until you’re halfway through and you figure out what the song is. … I don’t know what’s there. I’m just always just hoping against hope it’s not a reggae song.”
Schneider has long been a regular on the Aspen music scene, dating back to his time in the ’90s with his edgy funk bands Joe Rockhead and Ugly Americans and continuing with solo shows at Belly Up and an acoustic set at the 7908 Songwriters Festival.
“It’s really become one of my favorite places to play in the state,” he said. “Top five for sure.”
Through it all, he’s never played the same set twice and doesn’t ever plan to.
“I know a lot of people figure out what their best show is and then perform that night after night,” he said. “I’ve never really done that. It’s just not interesting to me to do a safe show like that.”
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