Words by: Dennis Cook | Images by: Susan J. Weiand
Railroad Earth :: 09.26.08 :: Fillmore Auditorium :: San Francisco, CA
Walking into The Fillmore last Friday, I didn't know the titles of many songs or even all the band member's names in Railroad Earth. What I did know was that over the course of the past two years I've found myself increasingly smitten by them each time I caught a show. While having not made the full "join-the-club" leap, I arrived determined to really focus and see if I couldn't figure out what was so freakin' compelling about these acoustic instrumented gypsy rockers.
It didn't take one song before I felt slathered in joy jelly, embraced by music of wide scope and bounteous spirit. It's a sensation I can only compare to the more intimate moments I spent with Jerry Garcia and the Dead in the '80s, a feeling of resounding well being manifested by the music and shining humanity of players with real American wit and soul. This Dead echo in RRE isn't a sound-a-like thing, either. It's their stretch into myriad facets of American popular music, from immigrant fiddle tunes to scratchy country blues to jazz fusion to '50s rock and around the bend to scoop up bluegrass, teary eyed folk and plain old exploratory instrumental music (these boys, especially during the full-on jams, are a worthy descendent of the often-uncredited Oregon). While America's rep as a melting pot has simmered down in the recent years of immigrant bias and border guarding, it is poignant to hear a band that embodies the best parts of this concept. While not expressly political, there is an empathetic, freedom embracing mojo to what Railroad Earth creates.
I should note that these lofty thoughts sprung into my head whilst I was skipping a light hippie jig during first set closer "Right In Tune," which charmingly announced, "I got no worries/ I got no doubts/ 'Cause you got it all worked out/ You know your part and I know mine/ And we're right in tune, me and you." There is a shared faith residing in the bottom of this tune and many others by this band, a feeling that together there isn't much that can't be accomplished. As a natural cynic, my knee-jerk reaction to such sentiments is usually to scoff and distance myself in some way. It's a stupid defense mechanism and the fact that RRE weaves past my defenses, and clearly those of the roiling dancers around me this night, is special. Hope is grasped in tiny snatches, dandelion petals whipping past in strong wind, and we're damn lucky if we get a hold of it at all. Breathing crisp night air out front during setbreak I felt positively stuffed full of hope, and it was all Railroad's doing.
Watching them with fresh eyes at the start of the second set, I was again struck by the overwhelming professionalism they exude. I've never seen them really chuff up a gig, and an off night for RRE is likely a very good night for many bands. They seem aware of how much chemistry and creative crackle exists between them. Lead singer-guitarist-songwriter Todd Sheaffer, Tim Carbone (violin, vocals), John Skehan (mandolin, vocals), Andy Goessling (multi-instrumentalist, vocals), Johnny Grubb (bass) and Carey Harmon (drums, vocals) run as a pack, shining when they step into the light but largely preferring to conjure their own brand of rolling thunder, which they did pretty much from top to tails at The Fillmore, swinging from high energy pick-a-thons (though blissfully free of bluegrass' usual showiness) to honest weepies like "L'il Bit O' Me," with its refrain of "Oh, little baby" choking up the many parents in attendance.
|Todd Sheaffer - RRE :: 09.27 :: San Francisco|
They are so humongously accessible that it's tough to fathom why they aren't pouring from radios everywhere, except that the institution, the recording industry in large part really, has turned its back on raw talent like RRE, unable to package real adults making fantastically crafted music in the age of music videos, instant sensations and short term affairs. For all the bands slammed with the dreaded "Next Grateful Dead" tag, Railroad Earth may be the best contender if only because their arc somewhat mirrors the Dead's own. Seven years into their existence and one sees the crowds growing, the fierceness of their followers intensifying (go hard, hobos!) and their music growing simultaneously more sophisticated and catchy with each release. This night drew heavily from this year's Amen Corner, and they injected fresh life into what were already very winning songs. And that's maybe the nut-meat here: their songs are future classics with the depth and potential to last lifetimes, which is what ultimately makes new generations clutch tight to what Hunter, Garcia, Weir, Barlow, etc. created together. It's hard to write music that feels and spits like folklore and Railroad Earth offered up a nigh ceaseless stream of these kind of long distance ditties.
Add to their high songcraft a smooth group interaction and soloing that sidesteps the usual music ego, where top shelf players like this peacock strut rather than serve some greater musical good. Watching Carbone and Skehan play pass the potato all night was a joy, and it never felt like any part took something away from the song unfolding around them. And the same could be said for the back-and-forth between every guy onstage. Their sound touches on a crazy quilt of artists: David Bromberg, Stealers Wheel, Leo Kottke, John David Souther, Paul Simon, John Prine, Gram Parsons and, most certainly, Workingman's-period Dead. There's also something of Duke Ellington's dance band concerts and antique sea shanties floating in their infectious air. Perhaps most surprising to me was how they played with the same energies I associate with something like Handel's Messiah or Beethoven's "Ode To Joy" in his Ninth Symphony. It's massive stuff to get one's paws around but they managed to rip off hunks of that kind of cosmic goodness netted by notes and words and lob it all over us. Like I said, joy jelly.
|Tim Carbone - RRE :: 09.27 :: San Francisco|
So, it was with a head full of big thoughts and a body weary from rumbling and shaking for several hours, I practically skipped into the street, pulling money from my pockets for the first real life hobo that asked me, feeling the need to share the fine feeling inside in some tangible way. I hope he got wine with my offering. I won't soon forget this feeling or miss another chance to tap into it again when Railroad Earth plays. They are a true surprise for me, not a band I thought I was going to love and one that brought me in for a long kiss with their music, their craftsmanship and warm personalities. And their hardcore fanbase doesn't hurt either. Heading toward my car, the title of a Grand Funk Railroad album produced by venerable freak Frank Zappa popped into my skull. When asked why he wanted to work with them, Zappa told them he heard "good singing, good playing" in them. And leaving behind all the big thoughts, that's probably what's most appealing about RRE – a guarantee of good singing and good playing, night after night after night.
A few quick thoughts on opener The Watson Twins before I dash. The sisters played with a full band and offered up a fuller, more adult contemporary sound than what they wrought with pal Jenny Lewis on 2006's Rabbit Fur Coat. Offering elemental come-ons like "the sky opened up and talked to me" and a mood/vibe not far from Aimee Mann and other quality L.A. pop sculptors, the Watsons offered a rustle of cymbals, acoustic strumming, electric guitar tickle and other subtle pleasures that seemed a little lost on the crowd, who were largely over-anxious for RRE to appear and didn't pause to drink in the Watson Twins cool water.
|The Watson Twins :: 09.27 :: San Francisco|
"I'm digging you right now," said one of the sisters mid-set. "I'm feeling love for you right now." And chatting with them briefly after the set it was clear they really do dig San Francisco people. And if you tuned in you caught not only their own late '70s Joni Mitchell worthy swooners but also a keen cover of The Cure's "Just Like Heaven." There is also a bit of ol' Roy Orbison's melancholy blues-pop to this pair, who were lovely if one just gave 'em a chance.
Railroad Earth :: 09.26.08 :: Fillmore Auditorium :: San Francisco, CA
Set One: Happy Song, Stillwater Getaway, L'il Bit O' Me, Just So You Know, Came Up Smilin', New Lee Highway Blues - > Fiddlee, Right In Tune
Set Two: Lois Ann , Peace on Earth, Seven Story Mountain, Hard Livin', 420, The Forecast, Lovin' You, Mighty River, Magic Foot - > Luxury Liner
Encore: Been Down This Road
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