Railroad Earth | Robert Randolph
Baker Ballroom | Dover, NJ | 04.05.02
On Friday, April 5, 2002, co-headliners Railroad Earth and Robert Randolph and the Family Band played to a near capacity crowd at the historic Baker Ballroom in Dover, New Jersey. As if this combination of musical talent were not enough, both Railroad Earth and Robert Randolph and the Family Band hail from New Jersey, making this a particularly special homecoming for all those in attendance.
Home to the world famous Stanhope House of Blues, Northwest New Jersey has supported a promising music scene for many years. Over the last twenty years area bands such as Blue Sparks From Hell, Kings in Disguise, The Lost Ramblers and the Bobby Syvarth Combo have gained regional recognition and critical acclaim. However, besides the late great From Good Homes, no local band has achieved the full-fledged national attention currently enjoyed by Railroad Earth (RRE) and Robert Randolph.
Over the last year, both RRE and Robert Randolph have brought their music to countless locations and fans through tireless national touring. Both bands have released albums and both are preparing for an active summer. RRE will be releasing its major label debut for Sugar Hill records in June, while Robert Randolph and the Family Band’s Live at the Wetlands has just been released to music stores. In addition, RRE will be performing at festival staples such as MerlFest, Telluride and High Sierra, while Robert Randolph will be supporting the Dave Mathews Band at selected dates and will perform at the blockbuster Bonaroo Festival in Tennessee. Based on these future plans, local music fans considered themselves lucky to be able to catch these bands within the intimate Baker Ballroom.
The Baker Ballroom is a majestic old theater dating to the turn of the century. Walking into the ballroom, one immediately gets the feeling of stepping back in time. The ballroom contains a balcony, a gathering area and a wonderful hardwood floor in front of the stage for dancing. Because the entire building is slanted toward the stage, there really is not a bad seat in the house. Throughout New Jersey there are old theaters like the Baker nestled in the heart of small towns like Dover. At one time these theaters were the heart of bustling central business districts. Today, theaters such as these are essential to downtown revitalization. On April 5th, the lights of the Baker were shining bright and scores of music fans brought their business to downtown Dover.
According to the ticket, the show was supposed to begin around 9:00p.m. I walked freely to the ticket booth around 8:30. By the time my reserved ticket had been located, there were about fifty people in line behind me. I guess everyone figured that 8:30 was the time to be there. As I walked into the theater, I immediately saw that RRE’s Todd Sheaffer was tuning his guitar and talking to fans in front of the stage. Meanwhile mandolin player John Skehan and fiddler Tim Carbone were milling around the ballroom and mingling with the crowd. After a few minutes exploring the nooks and crannies of the Baker, my friends and I claimed a spot on the dance floor.
By 9:00 the ballroom was packed, and Railroad Earth took the stage to heartfelt applause from their hometown fans. The band played a smoking ninety-minute set. Fresh from a national tour, RRE proved why they are receiving rave reviews across the country. They opened the show with a rocking new number, "Tear It Down." It was the first time I heard the song, but I was immediately impressed by its driving groove and tight three part vocal harmonies. The band slowed it down for the next number, the melodic and beautiful "Bird in the House." During "Bird", Todd busted a string at the beginning of his first solo of the night, but impressed the crowd by working admirably through this minor obstacle. Another new one, "Smiling Like A Buddha", followed. This song had a bouncy, rolling feel similar to songs by the String Cheese Incident. These new songs and "Mighty River", played later in the set, prove that RRE is quickly evolving and improving. None of the new songs sounded like bluegrass. Instead, these songs sound totally unique, transcending any convenient label. Railroad Earth blends elements of folk, bluegrass, rock and funk to create a totally original sound. In addition, the group’s careful three to six part vocal harmonies bring attention to Todd Sheaffer’s intelligent and ever evolving songwriting. Based on these new songs, I can’t wait to hear the new album.
The band ended the set with tour staples "Head", "Peace On Earth" and "Ragtime Annie Lee." These three songs had everyone on the energetic dance floor up and grooving. I’m really happy to see Andy Goessling and Dave Von Dollen singing their own songs. I love Todd’s vocals, but over the course of an entire show, they can grow tiring. The best bands within the jamband genre feature several lead vocalists (the Dead, Phish, String Cheese, Strangefolk, Widespread) and RRE will only benefit from vocal variety. Tim Carbone is an outstanding fiddle player, but he also has a great voice. He was lead vocalist for both Blue Sparks and Kings in Disguise, but he does not sing lead on any RRE songs. For the sake of the band and the fans, I hope Tim contributes one of his own numbers to the RRE catalogue in the near future.
This was the fourth time I’ve seen RRE and, from my experience, it was definitely one of their best performances. The boys keep getting tighter and tighter. I highly recommend checking the band out if they are in your area. I look forward to seeing them next at the All Good Festival in May.
Building upon the energy left by RRE, Robert Randolph and the Family Band successfully blew the roof off the Baker Ballroom. For those of you who are not yet familiar with Robert Randolph, do not worry, you soon will be. Randolph is a pedal steel prodigy. I have never seen a performer like him. For one, he can play the pedal steel guitar like a mad man. He brings a fresh and blooming style to this traditional instrument. Second, he has unbelievable stage presence. By the end of his passionate welcome to the crowd, everyone in the building knew that Robert was in control and we were about to experience a remarkable ride.
Though I loved every minute of Randolph’s show, I will not claim to know the name of every jam. I do know that they played blistering versions of "The March", "Ted’s Jam" and "Pressing My Way." In addition, RRE’s Tim Carbone and Andy Goessling joined the band for a beautiful instrumental version of "I’ll Fly Away" from the Oh Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack. Throughout the set, Randolph worked the crowd with both his instrumental prowess and his passionate dialogues about love. According to Randolph, he was born to spread love and that is exactly what he did Friday night at the Baker.
All in all it was an unforgettable night for New Jersey music fans. Kudos to the people at Create-A-Vibe for putting together this fantastic night of music. After seeing this show I am sure that, given the proper attention, the Baker Ballroom has the potential to become one of the finest places to see music in Northwest New Jersey. For all the music fans that have been patient enough to read this entire piece, please go see both Railroad Earth and Robert Randolph and the Family Band. I think that you’ll be truly impressed by what has been nurtured and grown within the hills of Northwest New Jersey.
JamBase | New Jersey
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