Railroad Earth | 03.12.04 | Fountain House | Newton, NJ

One of the most special bands spreading their powerful gospel around the US is Railroad Earth. Those of us that descended onto the sold-out Fountain House in tiny Newton, NJ realized the command and passion this group possesses on stage. The Fountain House is a small neighborhood bar and it is not the most opportune place to hold a show or construct sound, but thanks to Railroad Earth's FOH Sound Engineer Mike Partridge, it worked out well.

Railroad Earth by Larry Fox
The band is comprised of six very talented musicians: John Skehan (mandolin), Todd Sheaffer (lead guitar and vocals), Johnny Grubb (upright bass), Tim Carbone (fiddle), Carey Harmon (drums), and Mr. Everything Andy Goessling (playing all kinds of instruments from the mandolin, acoustic guitar, dobro, to the penny whistle and flute). Powered by the soulful, unique, and astonishing principle songwriting skills of Todd Sheaffer, this band is on the edge of greatness. Each member of the band takes turns at the lead role with vocal and backup harmonies as well, including Harmon, who provides a poignant backup voice behind his drum kit. This was indeed evident for those of us attending the Fountain House gigs this weekend.

From the opening notes of an original piece titled "Water Fountain Quick Sand" to the new Railroad Earth anthem "Long Way to Go," you could feel the reciprocation of energy between band and crowd. The boys from Railroad Earth possess a sort of organic and intricate approach to their music, relying on acoustic instruments to charm their fans--nicknamed "Hoboes"--around the country with simple, subtle, extraordinary songs.

On this night you could see the range of the band by just scanning over the night's set list. "Give that Boy a Hand" was soothing after a speedy and fun "Quick Sand" opener. The show began to take flight with the infectious "Butterfly and the Tree." This song has always held a place in the heart of many fans. From the opening drumbeat of Carey Harmon to the sultry rhythms of Johnny Grubb, we were taking flight in the enchantment of what this band does so well. After a raging "Butterfly," they slipped right into the mellow yet powerful "Sing for Me." The groove was picked up instantaneously after "Sing for Me" with a great bluegrass twin-mandolin number entitled "Fiddlee." Both Skehan and Goessling shined with this very danceable number and the crowd was once again ready to be engaged in what the band had to offer.

John Skehan & Andy Goessling
By Larry Fox
Up next was the catchy and appealing "Colorado." This was the first sign of the band attempting to stretch out and show their range and it did not disappoint. Anyone who has visited the great state of Colorado can attest to the alluring lyrics of this song. The band was very successful in creating a nice spacey flow in the middle of the "Steampipe" jam, which is a launching pad for some great moments. "Colorado" faded out and Sheaffer began a personal favorite of mine, "Where the Songs Begin." The lyrics, accompanied by great flute harmonies from Goessling and subtle playing from the rest of the band, made for a very unique version of this song. Once again, the middle section was slightly extended and the band explored new territories. I think it's quite important for Railroad Earth to take more chances on stage, and this was step in the right direction. The set ended with a heartfelt "Lois Ann," written for the beautiful and very energetic mother of mandolin player John Skehan.

The place was buzzing as the band took the stage for what was to be an incredible journey of music in the second set. It began with a new piece entitled "Storms." At first I really didn't like the placement of this song as a set opener, but by the end, my mind was changed. In the line "We won't let these troubles grind us" was a particularly genuine and earnest approach to life through song. This lyric shows the mastery of Todd Sheaffer and his talent as a songwriter. The foot-stomping "Drag Him Down" was high-energy as always and fun to hear, a big, bouncy, heart-racing number. "Moonshiner" followed, which features bassist Johnny Grubb on lead vocals and is always a treat to listen to. I always get a kick out of this song because I went to college in the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina, and well... You know!

Railroad Earth by Larry Fox
If I had to pick a song of the night that was pure, mind-blowing bliss, it had to be "Head." The intro was slightly different this time around with Goessling jumping right into the intro without the extended spacey intro as in the past, so we all knew we were in for a treat. This is where John Skehan and Tim Carbone left my jaw literally on the ground while riding the rail. The jam was being tossed around between all the players and then we all experienced liftoff with the dueling between Skehan and Carbone. Carbone was whipping and slicing through a stimulated solo and Skehan gently received the energy and brought the spotlight back onto him with his trusty mandolin. As the solo got more and more intense, the crowd was jumping up and down, throwing all the energy at Skehan; the floor at the Fountain House was moving up and down. Skehan responded by augmenting his flow into a more deep and passionate solo that left the room speechless, literally. I would say get the recording of this show, which is already posted on, just to hear this monster.

Just when we though we would get a break from the madness, the band inconspicuously slipped right into the crowd sing along "El Ronquillo." The enormous energy translated from a breathtaking "Head" and fun "El Ron," and continued with an old school Sheaffer tune titled "Old Man & the Land" (which is an ode to his father). The reggae-tinged flavor of this song enabled the crowd to flow in unison with the funky backbone rhythms conducted by Harmon and Grubb.

Andy Goessling & Todd Sheaffer
By Larry Fox
"Goat" is yet another new gem and this first-timer was written in the depths of a creative flow in Stillwater, NJ. This song will sure to be hovering on the verge of greatness as it gets road tested and played a few more times. Following this new number was "The Little Rabbit" which brought a nice bluegrass treat that kept the crowd engaged and dancing.

"Dandelion Wine" and "Any Road" are two songs in the normal Railroad Earth rotation and both were played with enthusiasm and excitement. George Harrison's "Any Road" is always a pleasant way to end a set of great music.

Since the Fountain House is so intimate, the band did not get a chance to leave the stage after the second set prior to the encore, so they discussed their options right in front of us. "Raindance," which is an old Sheaffer tune from the days of From Good Homes, was marvelous. The crowd was very pleased judging by the amount of folks who were belting out the "Can you feel it coming" and "Gonna open up the sky and let it rain" verses, assisting the band with our own vocal performance.

"Long Way To Go" was the final song of the night. This catchy and delightful tune sent the eager crowd into a dancing and sweating frenzy. This song made it into the rotation at the Mexicali Blues shows during their February return from the studio gigs. It has been getting rave reviews, and why not, it rocks!

We all know and believe in the healing power of music. This benevolent force was very evident in RE's playing this weekend at the Fountain House. If these two shows are any indication of how the road will be treating this band in 2004, we are all in for a treat for the eyes and ears.

In 2004, Railroad Earth will once again be hitting the road to spread their message and good vibes into a city near you. That is one of the rare gifts that Railroad Earth possesses--a sound that caters to all music fans, no matter what your musical tastes are. Fans from eight to 80 years old can come and dance and enjoy what this band has to offer, and that's rare in the scene today.

With their new CD in final production and set for release on June 8, 2004, expect great things from this group of very humble, talented musicians. For further information, check out to see when they are coming to a town near you.

Jimmy Sapia
JamBase | New Jersey
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[Published on: 3/16/04]

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