Railroad Earth :: 06.01.10 :: The Old Rock House :: St. Louis, MO

Railroad Earth: the band’s name touches on arguably two of the biggest symbols in America’s literary tradition and, by extension, her musical tradition as well. The railroad— boundless tracks, open skies, hope and optimism for new lives and new places—and the earth —rich soil, cleansing water, the deep and nurturing roots of the places we call home—are forces about as opposing but integral as they come. Our lives, as played out in the music we love, are anchored by these polar ends. Rock and roll especially—the hypnotic hybrid that thrives on the delicate and vivacious balance between poles, teetering on the brink of countless traditions but stubbornly refusing just one—embodies those sacred and mysterious paradoxes that surround us. Though often pigeonholed as a “bluegrass” band, likely due to their acoustic instrumentation and impressive chops, the term just doesn’t fit. While certainly bluegrass inspired, the genre is just another thread the band uses to weave together its enthralling sound, described best decades earlier by one of rock’s original cauldron stirrers, Levon Helm. When asked in The Last Waltz what to call his self described stew of bluegrass, country, rhythm and blues, Helm simply chuckled and replied: “Rock and roll.”

Few embrace this philosophy better than Railroad Earth. Combining bluegrass, folk, country and Celtic music, fine songwriting and a healthy dose of spaced out instrumental excursions, the band took the stage at the Old Rock House amidst a thundering applause and gave the packed house a night to remember. Firing off with “420,” they came out swinging hard. John Skehan’s mandolin rippled forcefully and dialogued incessantly with Tim Carbone’s violin; throughout the show it was fascinating to observe their buoyant interplay—simply electric. Another immediate call for attention was lead singer Todd Shaeffer’s impressive picking. Listening to their live record, Elko, I always assumed it was multi-instrumentalist Andy Goessling’s rich, distorted solos emanating from the speakers. Rather, to my surprise, Goessling took the lead on the more traditional bluegrass flatpicking—as well as fine banjo, mandolin and pennywhistle work (the guy’s a beast!)—while Shaeffer lent his calm, spooky and impeccably placed solos to almost every number.

As the band shouldered through “The Cuckoo” and charged into the fierce instrumental “Stillwater Getaway,” it struck me how seamlessly new bassist Andrew Altman has assimilated into the group. Hot off his heels from gigs in Blueground Undergrass (with whom he last saw St. Louis with at a monstrous pre-Phish show last summer) and the Codetalkers, he seemed perfectly at home with his new family, lending a funky, syncopated flair to more than a few tunes. Another major revelation was the skill and finesse of drummer Corey Harmon who, frankly, made the show. With an absolute mastery of the kit, a relaxed, loose feel and fine vocal harmonies, he was both the foundation and precipice of the music. He shuffled and swung expertly, always retaining a casual and spacious mood while driving each song on relentlessly. He was rock solid during the group’s up-tempo barn stompers but it was on the longer songs (“The Forecast,” “The Hunting Song,” “Like A Buddha”) that he really showed his mettle. During the music’s deepest, darkest and widest moments he would slyly retreat somewhat from the established rhythm, jazz up and space out, spreading his wings (and arms—literally) to produce a rich, molasses-thick groove on which the other band members could spring from.

But it wasn’t just great jamming that drove the music; it was great songcraft as well. Long hailed as a master songwriter, it was Shaeffer’s words and chords that sealed the deal. His sprightly but mournful voice rang out nobly above the music’s collective chaos to tell tales of mystery, misery and manhood. He has that Hunter-esque touch with a song—to tell familiar stories about familiar people from a lost America but in the most vague and poetic way. When you consider it from a stance, it’s just what makes RRE so special: that rarest of rare combination of great jamming—free, spacious and open playing that flies defiantly alone while simultaneously weaving in and out and snaking along with the other players—all within the framework of a meticulous, intelligent and well written song. A breathtaking “Like A Buddha,” though distinctively Celtic and jubilant in nature, couldn’t help but remind me of “Eyes of the World” at the Dead’s best: adventurous and alight during the solos, landing firmly and precisely on earth for a sweet, soulful verse only to depart for the heavens as soon as it arrived. Chaos and spontaneity coupled with clarity, craft and control were undoubtedly the band’s strongest cards.

Though the playing was masterful, the guys themselves were on the whole friendly, approachable and genuine individuals, chatting happily with fans during the set break and after the show. In fact, before the show began, a friend of mine approached Todd and asked him to play “Like A Buddha,” to which he shrugged his shoulders and replied, “Ok.” After the show, he saw my same friend again and shouted with a wink from across the room: “Good call!” The intimate and laid back venue was a perfect place to catch a group like this, as there is no backstage; after the show the band has no choice but to walk straight into the crowd. Hands were shaken, backs were slapped and names were exchanged as the show ended and the band mingled with the crowd outside in the glimmer of downtown’s sparkling skyline. Music, friends and weather like this on the first night of June—Summer couldn’t have started any other way. In the words of Shaeffer, ain’t it good to be alive?

Railroad Earth :: 06.01.10 :: The Old Rock House :: St. Louis, MO
Set I: 420, Elko, The Cuckoo, Stillwater Getaway > The Good Life, Chains, New Lee Highway Blues > Fiddlee
Set II: Cold Water, Walk Beside Me, Right In Tune, The Forecast, The Hunting Song, The Green Roofs of Eireann > Like A Buddha, Fisherman’s Blues
E: I Am A Mess
Wed 6/23/2010 2:10 PM