June 14, 2007
Categorizing Railroad Earth is hard, yet that’s what music journalists inevitably do. They’re bluegrass, but amplified and with drums. The two latter pretty much cancel out the standard definition of the genre, but that’s the closest comparison that can be drawn, even if it’s a progressive one.
Rooted in Flatt & Scruggs, they now carry the torch with arrangements and song treatments that have endeared them to younger fans and the jamband scene. One thing’s for certain: this ain’t your uncle from Kentucky’s bluegrass.
Does it really matter? No, because in truth, what they are is one of, if not the tightest goddamn band of musicians touring today.
When the band made their maiden voyage into Mississippi, they were met with enthusiasm matched by towns they’d been playing for years, and from the grins on the faces of both the audience and the band, it’s obvious they’ll be coming back to the Magnolia State sooner rather than later.
Breaking into a new market is tough for any band. But from the opening notes of an utterly smoking "Dance Around Molly > Dandelion Wine" it was evident that this was no ordinary show and certainly no ordinary band.
Proud Larry’s is a small place, and the audience was up against the stage and packed shoulder to shoulder like sardines in a can. Despite this, "Dandelion Wine" threw the people into a frenzy right from the start, like throwing fuel on an open flame.
"Old Man and the Land" slowed things down, to be immediately thrown back into fifth gear with the instrumental "Stillwater Getaway." Railroad Earth is a band of top-notch musicians. There aren’t many acts even close. With the instrumental bluegrass-esque songs, they really show it off. The ball was passed from musician to musician, as John Skehan’s razor-sharp mandolin lines gave way to multi-instrumentalist Andy Goessling’s acoustic picking, then to Tim Carbone’s beautiful yet aggressive fiddle. The pace slowed when Todd Sheaffter took over, and picked back up when he finished.
Sheaffer’s an interesting piece to the Railroad Earth puzzle. The reality is that he’s there for his voice and songwriting, and not for his picking. However, what he does contribute in his soloing is elegantly simple. He plays within himself, not going too far to stretch his ability to the breaking point. And that, in itself, is a very underrated feat. In a band known for its musicianship, he’s probably (and for lack of better term) the "weak" link, but by virtue of his cognizance of that fact, he contributes much more than is outwardly obvious.
The moment where it was obvious that Railroad Earth had a following in north Mississippi was the close of the first set, "Long Way To Go." A band never knows what to expect when they venture to a new city, and certainly not when they make their way into a new state. But, by the deafening (by small venue standards) sing-along with "Long Way," it was obvious. The people in Oxford love Railroad Earth. The look on the band members’ faces when the crowd sang along was priceless. They were clearly shocked – to the point that they closed the second set with a reprise of "Long Way To Go," undoubtedly added at the last minute.
Kicking off the second set in a strong fashion with "Cuckoo Bird," Railroad Earth lost no steam over the break. However, as good as the whole show was, the strong point was definitely "Head."
It was, in a word, insane. As Carey Harmon’s thumping kick drum pounded out the beat and Tim Carbone’s fiddle sighed out the opening notes, the room knew what they were in for, but once the whole room got moving, it was truly a transcendent moment.
The slower-paced intro finished, signified by Goessling’s banjo work and the band’s "whooa, oooooh, oooooooooooh oh" chorus, echoed by the crowd. The packed room bounced in unison, singing along to the chorus as the pace quickened and quickened.
Johnny Grubb’s bass drove the band, as they again soloed back and forth. The dazzling interplay between Carbone’s fiddle and Skehan’s mandolin was nothing short of spectacular, as the musicians pushed each other further and further. Again, Sheaffer added tasetful soloing, showing he’s more than just a songwriter.
If a band’s looking to throw a crowd into hysteria, then a Grateful Dead cover’s the way to go, or maybe a song relevant to the geography, one that hits home to the locals. Railroad Earth did both with the first song of their encore, "Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodleloo." Skehan was the all-star here; his mandolin work was spot-on all night, but really stood out here. Goessling even picked up a saxophone, showing his immense versatility as a musician.
Not enough can be said about Andy Goessling. Over the course of one show, he played banjo, lap steel, acoustic guitar, flute, mandolin, and saxophone, and each with amazing skill. It’s hard enough to play one instrument, and here’s a guy playing half a dozen – utterly amazing.
"Mississippi Half-Step" was stellar, and though the crowd had thinned out a little, those still hanging around sang along at the tops of their lungs, and after the "Railroad Earth" finale, sauntered off into the hot Mississippi night, satisfied with the night’s proceedings, undoubtedly looking forward to the band’s next stop in Oxford.
Set 1: Dance Around Molly > Dandelion Wine, Just So You Know, Old Man and the Land, Stillwater Getaway, Any Road, Dover to Dunkirk, Brown County Breakdown, Long Way to Go
Set 2: The Cuckoo Bird, Walk Beside Me, Butterfly and the Tree, Cuckoo’s Medley, Head, Storms, Like a Buddha > Long Way to Go (Reprise)
Encore: Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodleoo, Railroad Earth
all photos by Josh Mintz / photosbyjosh.com