Railroad Earth | 05.01.09 | S.F.

By: Dennis Cook | Images by: Dave Vann

Railroad Earth :: 05.01.09 :: Fillmore Auditorium :: San Francisco, CA

Listen to the show here while you read our review.

Railroad Earth :: 05.01 :: San Francisco
To be consistently special is a rare thing. To get onstage and play in such a way that the gathered throng leaves slightly aglow, burnished and massaged by a group’s handling, isn’t something bands or fans should count on. But, there are some units whose track record speaks volumes, and every single time I’ve seen Railroad Earth they’ve ignited carefree shuffling, spiritual uplift and generally shined in all regards while simultaneously slathering that glow all over the audience. About midway through the first set at The Fillmore it hit me, gut-level, that while one can’t expect magic, these guys are so deeply pro, so richly blessed with talent and fantastic material, so sincerely dedicated to generating good times with real depth, that one suspects a bad night with RRE is where your heels rise only a few centimeters from gravity’s pull instead of a full lunar leap.

The “Elko” kickoff struck this relative newcomer to their rail line as somewhat equivalent to a “Shakedown Street” opener for the Grateful Dead, an early sign that one is in for a hell of a night. But, this ain’t just a party because joyful as the music often is there’s a wonderful gray vein to Todd Scheaffer‘s songs, an empathetic but largely unsentimental understanding of the human condition that ripples through the music as well as the artfully assembled words.

All alone, all alone
Been so long on this dusty road
Oh mama, I need a leg to stand on
I need a card, I need a card
Hit me lord, not too hard
Oh mama, I need a winning hand

Railroad Earth w/ Kral :: 05.01 :: San Francisco
By the third song, “For Love,” I was already sweatin’ from swayin’ with a lump in my throat. While music writers are encouraged to pretend some distance, some mythical objectivity, I refuse to do so with Railroad Earth. Their own clear-eyed handling of faith and happiness in the face of needs and wants inspires me to just say flat out how good their music made me feel – a jolt on a cellular level, a high voltage charge to mind and body that left me quietly shaken, as if suddenly woken from an intense dream, after they put down their instruments.

Our hearts and bones had been well warmed by Cornmeal‘s opening set. The flame to most of us moths is likely violinist-singer Allie Kral, who’s pretty fuckin’ rock ‘n’ roll for someone sawing a fiddle, but quit your gawking and you’ll find she’s surrounded by tough, serious, very gifted players who’re putting some major muscle into string band inspired music. In S.F., they seemed determined to get some solid meat between their teeth in their 45-minute set, which demonstrated that folk can be hard n’ greasy. Like the headliner, Cornmeal is really a rock band with bluegrass instrumentation rather than the other way around, and in this way recall the early days of The Band – just one of many delightful echoes from ancestral masters like Levon Helm’s hefty, swinging drumming, the spilled fire of Dylan violinist Scarlet Rivera and the big, body shaking double bass of Pentangle’s Danny Thompson.

Though young, there’s already a future-classic feel to Cornmeal that was evident during this heady, over-too-fast set, where RRE’s John Skehan (mandolin) and Tim Carbone (violin) sparred beautifully with the Chicago kids. There is huge chemistry between these two bands and a shared bill is likely to produce the kind of bonus sparks we saw this evening. One particular face-to-face, center stage bow off between Kral and Carbone generated enough wattage to power the artful, dancing light show that illuminated and accented the music with intuitive prowess throughout the show. In the spirit of Railroad Earth, Cornmeal gets that putting on a show, entertaining as one pursues art, is a skill worth honing, and they put an exclamation point on this idea by closing their set with a rousing cover of Paul Simon’s “I Know What I Know” that felt more like an acoustic take on Zeppelin’s “Ramble On.” By the end, all was motion and toothy enjoyment.

Railroad Earth :: 05.01 :: San Francisco
“You are a butterfly, I am a tree,” sang Scheaffer later, and I was reminded of the old saw about a butterfly’s wings beating at one end of the world and that ripple producing rain on the other side of the globe. Connectivity and semiotic overlap lie at the heart of RRE, surfacing perhaps first in the observational, reflective lyrics, which wrestle with both the wandering life and what it takes to make a home. But, similar super-string is laced into their music, which can veer into Celtic ascents, Kentucky bluegrass jags and mildly unhinged Sun Ra-y experimentation. Anchored to rhythms that’d do the ’50s Sun Studio and ’60s Motown house bands proud, it all moves grandly but feels of a piece. By the end of the second set I felt truly taken on a journey full of hills and valleys, breathtaking vistas and low roads, but the passage through was contiguous, linked organically like soil, sun and seed. Add water, i.e. the audience and concert hall temple, and everything sprouts miraculously.

As I’ve begun to really fall for this band in the past year I find myself constantly struck by how they manage to be positive without losing all cynicism. As they cogently observe, we are so often a bird in a house dying to get out. The bite of hard things is well sunk into us but what kinda creature are you if you don’t push against total mastication, taking your licks and nicks for the chance to be truly free, even if only fleetingly. Hope enters barefooted in Railroad Earth, melancholy intact but eyes twinkling with the dream of something brighter. Rocking back and forth amongst The Fillmore’s revelers, I could see how this cavernous ontology doesn’t come across as preachy or hokey – it’s just great music that moves us, perhaps in ways we cannot fully understand in the moment but may come to in the moonlight afterglow, cigarettes dangling dazedly as we lean against people who were total strangers a few hours back.

Railroad Earth :: 05.01 :: San Francisco
This show also cemented their range for me. Yeah, there’s banjo and mandolin and fiddle but they work those humps into ’76 Dead funkiness (you know, that clean, chemically spiced stuff that makes you groove and seek out mischief), classic radio pop, pastoral jazz, slaphappy honky tonk and yes, the occasional pure hoedown. I may not be technically savvy enough to tell you how they weave all this stuff together so seamlessly but emotionally and viscerally it makes so much sense and is peppered with so many nice small touches, tiny inspirations that don’t distract from the main thrust but offer something cool for the attentive kids in the crowd. To wit, the final encore of Dead-adored country gem “Catfish John,” where the collective ache of the harmonies and delicate picking would’ve been plenty to send us away happy, but in waltzes Andy Goessling on clarinet, throwing a line back to Benny Goodman’s small groups and further elevating the feeling I’ve had that Railroad Earth is a modern descendent of road master dance bands like Ellington’s 1950s orchestra or the King Records soul revues with a young James Brown, Johnny “Guitar” Watson and Joe Tex.

When these shows came to town it was an event and folks put on their zoot suits and pearls, ready to shake a leg till the fat lady called it a night. In our own freak-flagged way, Railroad Earth fans bring their own “finery,” breaking bread and sharing spirits with whoever stands at our elbow. All seem ready to jump in and they’ll always extend a hand back for you if you’re lagging. Within RRE’s music lies the catalyst for this unforced communion. What they offer with such exuberant passion and well-reined musicianship sweeps one into the big pool, where all are welcome to splash, squirt and frolic. We do not so much leave our troubles at the door as offer them up, rinse the shame off ’em and kick ’em around a spell. We are not outright changed but perhaps bettered for our time with Railroad Earth, and surely better armed with songs to help us on the days we aren’t surrounded by smiling hobos and gentle travelers.

By all reports the second night of this two-evening S.F. run was even stronger, including some choice sit-ins by New Monsoon electric guitar wizard Jeff Miller. As pointed out, this band seems to deliver quality every single time at bat. Check out Saturday’s show here.

Railroad Earth tour dates available here.

Railroad Earth :: 05.01.09 :: Fillmore Auditorium :: San Francisco, CA
Set I: Elko, Bread and Water, For Love, Saddle of the Sun, The Good Life, Waggin’ the Dog, Cuckoo’s Medley*
Set II: Everything Comes Together, RV, Butterfly and the Tree, Bird in a House, New Jam, “Happy Birthday” to Drummer Carey Harmon, All Alone*, Cold Water, 09 Head
Encore: Hard Livin’, Catfish John
*with Cornmeal’s Allie Kral on violin

Continue reading for more pics of RRE at The Fillmore…

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