Railroad Earth | 06.10.08


Photo: Joanna Kleine 


Railroad Earth absolutely thrives in a live setting. Their lengthy jamming never seemed overly experimental as there always seemed to be a deliberate exploration through each song.

Blueberry Hill, St. Louis

It seemed as if 12:30 a.m. came all too soon, both for all six members of Railroad Earth and for everyone squeezed into a very warm Duck Room who came enjoy them. The Stillwater, New Jersey boys’ evening in St. Louis marked the celebration of the release of their new album, Amen Corner, which they so graciously played an abbreviated free-of-charge acoustic set from and signed copies of for fans at Vintage Vinyl earlier in the evening. The albumwhich promises to become an Americana classic, is a triumph for the band. This time around they weren’t forced to adhere to strict production schedules and budgeting that normally apply when working in a commercial recording studio since they wrote and recorded the album in lead vocalist and songwriter Todd Sheaffer’s 300-year-old farmhouse settled in New Jersey’s rural countryside.

Greensky Bluegrass from Kalamazoo, Mich. kicked off the show, playing from their most recent album, Tuesday Letter, produced by Railroad Earth violinist Tim Carbone. They threw down their own brand of bluegrass just the way I like it, with enthusiasm and creativity – yet never straying too far away from tradition. It’s not surprising that they won first place in the Telluride Bluegrass Festival band competition in 2006 – their performance on this Tuesday night was rich and mature and left me wanting to buy their music so I could hear more.

Next, Railroad Earth took the stage to a welcome as warm as the room and began what would prove to be a truly elegant performance, opening with the classic "Bird in a House," the title track of their 2002 release. You’d have to be clinically depressed not to enjoy yourself at a Railroad Earth show.  You leave feeling as if you’ve been on a journey, awakened musically, given some direction, some inspiration.

Scheaffer’s voice has a casual, inviting grate to it, and never jumps too far out in front. His vocals are just the icing on the cake of what is an extremely well-rounded brotherhood of musicians, each instrument taking a delicate, gorgeously transitioned step into the spotlight at one time or another. Highlights of the show included the insane violin solos of Carbone, holding his own if not winning by a nose over John Skehan on mandolin in their anticipated duel. Not to take away from Skehan who proved himself a master on the mandolin consistently all night, especially during his solo during "Colorado." The bright accents of Skehan’s mandolin add a polished grace to RRE’s music and watching him play in such close quarters was indeed a delightful experience. 

Johnny Grubb manned the shadows a bit on the Duck Room stage, but if you ventured to watch him, you’d easily see that his heavy plucks on the upright bass act as a backbone, strengthening each song with deep texture. Pulling the lacing even tighter is percussionist-drummer Carey Harmon and multi-instrumentalist Andy Goessling, who took position as resident banjo, acoustic guitar and dobro player, and saxophonist, of not just one but two.

The more the merrier when it comes to instruments on a RRE stage as they’re constantly striving for that "unique acoustic instrumentation" as Carbone puts it. If you listen to the recording of their performance just four days later at the Ogden Theater in Denver, you’ll hear not only the staple mandolin, violin, acoustic guitars, stand-up bass, but also trumpet, flute and female back-up singers – none of which were present in their St. Louis performance, yet somehow were woven in flawlessly – a testament to the virtuosity that comes with ease after playing with each other for so long. 

Railroad Earth absolutely thrives in a live setting. Their lengthy jamming never seemed overly experimental as there always seemed to be a deliberate exploration through each song. And evidently they’re not too shabby at the jam – Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh has even asked the guys to act as the"friends" portion of the Phil Lesh and Friends band, understandably "blowing the band’s collective mind."  They’re also not scared to throw in a few twists wherever they deem necessary – such as Carbone trading in his violin for an electric guitar, Skehan taking on Goessling’s banjo and Goessling grabbing his saxophones during "Hard Livin’," from their new album. Other tracks visited from Amen Corner were "Been Down This Road," "Bringin’ My Baby Back Home," and "All Alone."  Other favorites from previous albums played were "Mighty River," "R.V.," "Long Way to Go" and "Like a Buddha."  We all, I’m sure, would have loved to hear other classics such as "Mourning Flies" and "Waggin’ the Dog," however the evening had flown and some show-goers were sure to be battling the hair of the dog Wednesday morning. 

At first listen to a broader body of their studio recordings, you’d dare assume that Railroad Earth is a bluegrass band; and although you wouldn’t necessarily be wrong, you’d just be a bit narrow-aimed. It would be more accurate to call them ablue-jam-country-rock-folk-groove-acoustic-grass band. Huh? Exactly, but it works, beautifully. | Joanna Kleine







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