Railroad Earth with Great American Taxi | Santa Cruz | Review | Pics

Words by: Dennis Cook | Images by: Suzy Perler

Railroad Earth with Great American Taxi :: 01.28.11 :: Catalyst :: Santa Cruz, CA

Andy Goessling & Todd Sheaffer by Suzy Perler
The company one keeps matters. How we conduct ourselves solo does, too, but those we bump up against will inevitably influence us for better or worse. One of the great joys of seeing Railroad Earth and Great American Taxi is the folks they attract. Before one even got through the door to The Catalyst one felt slapped ‘n’ tickled by rowdy, good energy. This was a tribe that came to dance and revel their cares away. The preponderance of shaggy, overall clad youngsters spoke to the 16 & up age limit, and in the past year RRE’s audiences have been creeping younger than the many dyed-in-the-wool Dead fans and older rockers already hip to them. The mixture of ages and infectious spirits at this show made one feel fine, and that sense only ballooned once the lights fell and Vince Herman and his merry band kicked into gear.

Despite only being in existence for a few years, Great American Taxi rattles and hums like a classic already. Their rock has such a natural, inviting nature that it’s as if they snatched it from God’s Songbook to share with us. Eyes closed, drinking in their music, I found myself thinking of how well these cats would have fit on an old Fillmore bill with New Riders of the Purple Sage, Lowell-era Little Feat and Goose Creek Symphony. Theirs is road music perfect for the jukebox of wheels, tunes for the miles we devour on the way to things. And by golly, it’s so enjoyable! Vince had the washboard out by the end of the first song, clearly infected by the general ambience flowing stage-ward.

Herman (vocals, guitar, mandolin, etc), Chad Staehly (keys), Jim Lewin (guitar), Chris Sheldon (drums) and Brian Adams (bass) are an egalitarian bunch, sharing lead vocals and passing the solo potato gracefully, though generally preferring to play as a unit, listening well to one another and responding in the moment (a trait they share with RRE). At this gig they showed off a nice range, touching on well worn classics (“Ain’t Nobody’s Business What I Do”) and making them skip anew and showing off their own fine catalogue, especially a powerfully etched “American Beauty,” an original that fittingly holds its own against the inevitable Grateful Dead allusion in its name. They showed both great nuance and an ability to go for the pleasure jugular with dust raisers like “Tough Job.” Railroad’s Tim Carbone joined them for a ripping train song and a couple more, helping amp up the already ragged hoedown on the main floor – so many really silly dance moves but charming nonetheless. As GAT sang, “Just when you think it can’t no better/ Iit does.” If you don’t have a good time with the Taxi I’d question your motivations and suggest some deep tissue work and a powerful psychoactive nummy to bring you into their copacetic atmosphere.

Andrew Altman by Suzy Perler
There’s a sense of a moment unfolding as Railroad Earth begins a performance. It’s an unmistakable rumble in the belly, a tickle at the base of one’s neck, a warming wave that sweeps the body and mind. It’s uncanny how it has hit me every single time I’ve seen them, but the way they approach music – the sincerity and skill and soul they pour into it – is apparent right from the start of a show, and Santa Cruz was true to form. It’s almost as if someone has handed you a metaphorical bottle of wine and said, “Tilt it up and draw deep.” There’s definitely an element of intoxication to the experience, but there’s nothing wrong with a nice buzz, eh?

Such a buzz would be enough for most bands but Railroad Earth serves up something a lot more nourishing, a lot more substantive, in their music, something evident in the carefully tuned song selection this evening, which ranged through indestructible favorites like “Bird in a House” and “Hard Livin’” through cagier, rangier instrumental passages and a resounding finale tour de force through the Grateful Dead’s “The Wheel,” where they were bolstered by some super yummy Jerry-esque licks from GAT guitarist Jim Lewin. If one gives themselves to the experience, RRE takes one on a journey, no matter that we stayed put in one location – there are many ways to travel, as anyone who’s lived a little will tell you. More so than usual, I felt lifted and launched onto the trail with the band in Santa Cruz, some of this energy coming from stellar new bassist Andrew Altman, whose exuberance for the task at hand obviously stokes the group's collective fire. Perhaps it was the bubbling, bounteous energy coursing through the collected mass or maybe it was just a particularly “on” night, but if one wanted a lil’ adventure this music sure as hell provided it.

John Skehan by Suzy Perler
During the second set, the band did something I’ve witnessed a lot, which is steering into unexpected places. With a joyful kickoff to the set, they steadily progressed into bramble filled passages, hanging on the edge of things, swaying with darkness, flirting with where things might go. The freaky instrumental bridge between “Warhead Boogie” and “The Green Roofs of Eireann” had me reciting Willie Wonka’s “Wondrous Boat Ride” speech, and then they emerged into light, a fresh breeze rushing through our minds, and the whole stretch culminating in a just-perfect-for-the-moment spin of “The Wheel.”

There’s nothing timid or small about Railroad Earth. While Todd Sheaffer’s songs have an unerring ability to suss out the real meat of the human condition and give it poetry and legs, there’s a boldness and musicality to this band that recalls Led Zeppelin III - particularly the unique, attention-snagging mandolin of John Skehan and downright rock star flair to Carbone’s violin solos – and even the acoustic work of seemingly incongruous touchstones like Nirvana and Alice In Chains. Railroad Earth mingles the muscle of these groups with the folksy wisdom of John Hartford, Tim Hardin and 70s Dylan. As more & more electricity flows into their work, the more these rock aspects become apparent, an evolution fitting a band this bold and broadly appealing.

Railroad Earth Setlist
Set 1: Just So You Know, Shockenawe Mountain Breakdown, Bird in a House, Colorado, Mourning Flies, Potter's Field, 1759
Set 2: Hard Livin', Elko, Give That Boy a Hand, Warhead Boogie > The Green Roofs of Eireann > Like a Buddha > The Wheel (A)
Encore: Ophelia (A) (B)

(A) with Jim Lewin on electric guitar
(B) with Vince Herman on electric guitar and lead vocals

Continue reading for more pics of RRE at the Brooklyn Bowl...

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