March 3, 2011
It was a long time coming, Railroad Earth’s Memphis debut.
Sure, they’ve played near Memphis – a few east in Nashville, or down the road to the south in Oxford, MS.
But never, ever in Memphis.
That is, until the beginning of March. With a new(-ish) record in the can, Railroad Earth took its maiden voyage to Memphis, and despite ignoring the Bluff City over their decade of existence, Minglewood Hall was rocking from the opening notes of "Bird In A House" to the show-closing "My Sisters and Brothers."
Railroad Earth is truly a train rumbling down the track, a force of nature. From top to bottom, this may be the most talented band on the jam-grass circuit. They’re ALL skilled musicians, but maybe none moreso than Andy Goessling. The guy is a freak of a musician. He’ll play banjo on one tune, electric guitar on another, and then, as he did on the second set-closing "Hard Livin’," pick up not one but two saxophones and play them simultaneously. It’s a feat enough to play one instrument for a living, and that guy plays a half-dozen or so.
As a whole, Railroad Earth is a band on fire at the moment. The first Minglewood set pushed the bar up fairly high; "Bird In A House" was a great opener, a stellar way to ease the crowd into the evening. Todd Sheaffer isn’t a true bluegrass picker – he doesn’t really have the chops to deliver a flurry of notes like most bluegrass guitarists. What he does though, is play elegantly tasteful solos within his capabilities, and they’re always on point, perfect for their context.
Sheaffer’s solo gave way to Tim Carbone’s fiddle solo, and with that, the Railroad Earth show had gathered steam. Carbone is the man. His passion for his trade is so evident in the subtle close of the eyes and smirk when it’s his turn to take over the show.
While the band delved into their back catalog, a chunk of the show focused on the new material, and they really knocked it out of the park with "Lone Croft Farewell," a song that’s certain to take on a whole new direction as it gets more and more stage time. While the back-and-forth solos weren’t quite there yet, the lyrics of "Lone Croft" are superb. Sheaffer’s a hell of a songwriter – it’s one of the fortes of the band and one of the things that sets RRE apart from the rest of the herd – they’ve got both the instrumental abilities and the songwriting, not one or the other.
The first set wrapped with "Like A Buddah > Jupiter and the 119," two songs that are perfectly paired – fast-paced songs that get the crowd moving at a frenetic pace. Railroad Earth may have just landed in Memphis, but juding by the first set, it was as if they’d been playing here for years.
The second set opened with Andrew Altman’s thumping bass and delicate mandolin notes from John Skehan, which built into the blunt force of "Mighty River," a perfect tune given the Mississippi River cuts a path between Memphis and Arkansas. It was a powerful way to start the rest of the night and a true picture Railroad Earth – the entire band playing as one, passing solos back and forth across the stage.
This train wasn’t stopping for anything in its path; the crowd kicked up its heels with the following song, "Elko." Then Carey Harmon pounded out the opening notes of "Head," Carbone and Skehan joined in, followed by yet another Goessling solo on yet another instrument (banjo) and the 400-plus folk joined in to help sing the chorus. While the band may not know Memphis, it was clear Memphis knew Railroad Earth.
Altman showed his versatility on "Spring-Heeled Jack," switching over to electric bass. This instrumental will also morph into new things over the years, but right, it’s already got a strong foundation.
The show closed with a great take on the afore-mentioned "Hard Livin’," which had Goessling on double saxophone, Carbone on electric guitar and Skehan switching over to banjo…it seemed that, by this point, the only instrument switching that HADN’T happened was Harmon leaving his drum kit to go pour drinks behind the bar. Goessling and Carbone traded solos back and forth across the stage, each pushing the other further and further. The band was sweaty, the night was getting late, and yet they were still pouring everything they had into their craft.
As the "Evening With Railroad Earth" came to a close, the band had proven that they’re probably the best at what they do – bending genres of music to create something utterly amazing.
And, the audience had proven that the Railroad Earth has a large fanbase in Memphis. This debut show was long overdue, and here’s to hoping they don’t stay away too long.
Set I: Bird in a House, Shockenawe Mountain Breakdown, Saddle of the Sun, Been Down This Road, Potter’s Field, Lone Croft Farewell, Like a Buddha > The Jupiter and the 119
Set II: Mighty River, Elko, Head, The Forecast > Black Elk Speaks, Spring-Heeled Jack, Dance Around Molly > Dandelion Wine, Long Walk Home, Hard Livin’
Encore: My Sisters and Brothers