Hard Working Americans’ rockumentary has roots in Boulder

Scenes from the Hard Working Americans' December debut at the Boulder Theater dominate Justin Kreutzmann's "The First Waltz."  (Tobin Voggesser / Courtesy photo)
Scenes from the Hard Working Americans’ December debut at the Boulder Theater dominate Justin Kreutzmann’s “The First Waltz.” (Tobin Voggesser / Courtesy photo)

By Quentin Young

In the middle of “The First Waltz,” a new rockumentary about the Hard Working Americans, singer Todd Snider lays down a vocal track for the song “Wrecking Ball” by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. We watch the take unfold from beginning to end, and as the music concludes we see the reaction in the control room. David Schools, the Widespread Panic bassist who plays with the Americans, shakes his head.

“(Freaking) mesmerizing,” he says. Someone off camera agrees and says, “I was like on the verge of tears there.”

The movie chronicles how HWA came together around a bunch of songs Snider had been collecting over the years from other songwriters and put together an album and live show that debuted at the Boulder Theater last Dec. 20. Filmmaker Justin Kreutzmann was there all the way. He takes us into the studio when the musicians are just getting to know each other as a band, and he takes us on tour with the band as they hit the road together. The curtain is drawn back on the dynamics of a group that features six elite members of the jam-band scene, and we get a rare view of such artists as they live moments like the creation of “Wrecking Ball.”

The movie is scheduled for a first airing at 7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 24, on the music site palladia.tv, which also plans subsequent airings. The DVD and a live album of recordings from the band’s first tour are set to be released Tuesday, Oct. 28, and they’re available for preorder through the band’s website (thehardworkingamericans.com).

A slate from the filming of Justin Kreutzmann's "The First Waltz," a rockumentary about the Hard Working Americans  (Tobin Voggesser / Courtesy photo)
A slate from the filming of Justin Kreutzmann’s “The First Waltz,” a rockumentary about the Hard Working Americans (Tobin Voggesser / Courtesy photo)

The band’s keyboardist, Chad Staehly, a Boulder resident, saw the film for the first time during a screening last month at the Americana Music Festival in Nashville, and the final product “hit us in a totally different way,” he said.

“I hadn’t realized how funny it was until I sat there and watched it with other people,” he said.

Having a camera crew around could be unsettling in those early days of the band, but Staehly figured that even if the band didn’t work out — it was their first waltz, and no one knew if they’d dance well together — failure could make a compelling story.

“If we played terribly, there’s a story there,” he said. “We really weren’t sure what was going to happen.”

As it did happen, the members went together like red and white stripes on a flag. It’s a sign of their musical success that the highlights of the movie are the extensive sequences from the sold-out Boulder Theater show. Kreutzmann lets whole songs play out, and the music proves this editing decision the correct one.

“I felt proud of what we put out there,” Staehly said.

Here are some things you learn from the movie: Snider intends the name Hard Working Americans to be an accurate, unironic description of the band, two of his favorite bands to see live are Yonder Mountain String Band and Widespread Panic, and the Hard Working Americans smoke a lot of pot. How much?

“We smoke more pot before 9 a.m. than most people do all day,” Snider says to the camera after taking a hit from a pipe. In another scene, drummer Duane Trucks, who’s the younger brother of guitarist Derek and nephew of Allman Brothers Band drummer Butch, forgets what he’s saying during an on-camera interview.

“Sorry, stoned, lost my train of thought,” he says, laughing.

Taking on the project was a roll of the dice, Kreutzmann said, because the band members hadn’t even shown they could be productive together. When the band first proposed the project to him, Kreutzmann found it humorous. Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Waltz,” a touchstone of rock movies, chronicled the final concert of a legendary band. HWA was barely fully formed.

“I stopped laughing and said, ‘That’s like a crazy idea,’ ” he said. “It was so crazy I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m in.’ ”

The rock documentary is Kreutzmann’s forte. He has made films about The Who and the Grateful Dead, a band that featured his father, Bill, on drums, and which he was around his whole life. According to Kreutzmann’s insider’s view of the Hard Working Americans, “the stars aligned.”

“First of all, it was the musicianship,” he said. “When you put those kinds of minds together, that’s your first recipe for success.”

The first waltz will not be the last. Staehly said the band is already working on its second album.


Comments are closed.