Railroad Earth | California | Review | Photos

Words by: Eric Podolsky | Images by: Susan J. Weiand

Railroad Earth :: 03.10.12 :: The Fillmore :: San Francisco, CA

Photo gallery below review!

RRE's Tim Carbone & NM's Jeff Miller by Susan J. Weiand
In what has become an annual stop for the band in recent years, the rising phenomenon known as Railroad Earth brought a packed crowd of devoted “hobos” to The Fillmore for a joyous two-night run. Bringing their A-game on a sold-out Saturday night, the six-piece band of acoustic virtuosos took us on a true journey, armed with a hefty load of hearty, Americana-tinged songs, pristine musicianship, and one very special guest. A number of years have passed since I last caught RRE, and Saturday's performance surprised and delighted with its musical diversity. Touching on elements of country, bluegrass, Irish folk music, rock and reggae, the band explored a surprising array of musical landscapes, taking us down the rabbit hole and back home again in the course of three hours.

An infectious opening set from New Monsoon proved to be a perfect warm-up for the evening's events. Fueled by the rollicking licks of electric guitarist Jeff Miller and helped out by a couple of RRE members, their set peaked with a funky, fiddle-laced take on the Talking Heads' "Slippery People," followed by a prog rock/bluegrass breakdown jam on “Daddy Long Legs” to close. The good-natured crowd was clearly well-oiled and ready for the main event, but no one could have expected what surprises RRE had in store for us on this night.

Railroad Earth by Susan J. Weiand
As the band took the stage and launched into their anthemic "Bird in a House," the first thing that struck me was the extent of their fans' devotion. Many knew every word to the songs, singing along to Todd Sheaffer's husky vocals with passion. Next came the shit-kickin' pickin' party "Happy Song," which showcased the effortless fluidity of both mandolinist John Skehan and fiddler Tim Carbone, who flanked either side of the stage with their fluttering, weaving licks. This was followed by "Elko," another sing-along-worthy tune of gambling and rabble-rousing which could be considered RRE's theme song of sorts (it featured some playing-card-throwing audience participation that the band got a kick out of).

And though this band boasts some of the best pickers in all the land, what really sets them apart is the quality of Todd Sheaffer's songs. Steeped in Americana, Sheaffer's pastoral songwriting boasts timeless and uplifting themes of resilience that are a joy to sing along with. Songs like "Storms" and "Lone Croft Farewell" are crafted to soothe your soul – they contain an emotional resonance that has the ability to crack you open and access parts of you that are rarely exposed. This purity, when combined with the band's patient and mature instrumental ability, makes for a concert experience that feels like a breath of fresh mountain air.

After a short first set highlighted by a pulsing, entrancing jam out of "Morning Flies," the band returned with a slow-rising take on "Mighty River” that warmed us up for an adventurous set that no one saw coming. The way their music patiently chugs along, each member weaving in and out of the other with agility and precision, is a testament to their years on the road. The lack of ego in their playing is readily apparent, especially in multi-instrumentalist Andy Goessling, whose banjo, guitar and dobro playing always colored the music just the right amount.

Phil Lesh by Susan J. Weiand
At this point, bassist Andrew Altman switched from upright to electric bass, which lent a thicker, harder groove to the music. We then took a dive into the deep end with "Warhead Boogie," which featured an extended jam that ebbed and flowed like water, evoking Dylan's Rolling Thunder band in its roaring intensity. Carbone peaked us out with an epic, swelling fiddle solo, and the music dissolved from there, melting into a broiling, free-jazz stew. The unity, cohesion and egoless sympathy of this set was remarkable at this point – we were truly in it deep now. And then, out of the ether, a hypnotic, pulsing groove. The Congos? Yes, RRE was playing a jazz take on "Congoman" off of the reggae classic Heart of the Congos. The music strayed deeper and deeper into the cosmos, and then Phil Lesh appeared stage right to a thunderous greeting.

Altman switched to rhythm guitar, Phil strapped in, and the music made a soft landing into the familiar first chords to "Terrapin Station." Scheaffer's delivery of the lyrics was delicate and loving, though his uniquely dusty, understated voice seemed not quite suited to the Dead's soulful style. Regardless, the band's sound was well-suited to the song, and they pulled of the tricky composition masterfully. For the big coda, Phil turned himself way up to drop some seriously satisfying bombs on us. We soon learned this was to be no run-of-the-mill sit-in, as Phil stayed onstage to explore the outer regions of the RRE original "Spring Heeled Jack." To hear Phil thump away and put his stamp on a non-Dead-related piece of music was refreshing. The tune's Irish jig melody was followed by an extended bout of satisfying Dead-inspired weirdness before we were treated to a warm, albeit hesitant take on "Crazy Fingers." Phil then bid us adieu with a joyful take on his theme song, "Box of Rain" (Skehan's mandolin was prime on this one), and the band brought it all back home with the uplifting square-dance pickin' of "Peace on Earth," followed by an encore of the Dawg-like jazzgrass instrumental "Cuckoo Medley." Rollicking banjo, shimmering mandolin and soaring fiddle intertwined in blissful harmony, and we kicked up our heels in celebration of life.

The effect this performance had on me was akin to the feeling of escaping into some wide open Colorado back-country: I came away from the show feeling refreshed, centered, and with a clear head – even my stuffed sinuses had opened up (this is the sign of a truly great concert experience in my book). This may be because RRE is able to transport you into a unique musical world, steeped in its own aura. This is a trait only a few select bands are able to lay claim to, and is probably what drew Phil to RRE in the first place, as his other band certainly had it. After Saturday night, it's certainly a place I intend to seek out again.


Set I: Bird in a House, Happy Song, Elko, Storms, Stillwater Getaway, Mourning Flies - > Lone Croft Farewell

Set II: Mighty River, Warhead Boogie - > Congoman Chant, Terrapin Station*, Spring-Heeled Jack*, Crazy Fingers*, Box of Rain*, Peace on Earth

E: Cuckoo Medley

* - w/ Phil Lesh

Railroad Earth Tour Dates :: Railroad Earth News

New Monsoon Tour Dates :: New Monsoon News

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[Published on: 3/16/12]

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