Reviews > Shows
Railroad Earth in New Brunswick
New Brunswick, NJ
A seated Railroad Earth show in New Jersey? Strange, for in the twenty-seven Railroad shows I have attended, this would be a first. I however am not going to question anything Railroad does in New Jersey, for the sextet calls the garden state home and this was my first time seeing them east of Michigan. The vibes were very much older family, and there were faces there I have been seeing now for years. Amy Helm Band opened, and at once the sense was that the night was going to be extraordinary. Her voice is fantastic, and the group itself brought a great deal of energy for an opener.
Railroad took the stage soon after, and almost immediately I was overcome with the feeling of coming home. I have never been to New Jersey, the east coast itself is new to me, and for the first time since I have moved I felt like I was exactly where I was supposed to be. So is the effect of one’s favorite band. If Todd Sheaffer (guitar, vocals) seemed nervous during the first set, surely it had something to do with playing for all his longtime friends and family. They opened up with “The Jupiter and the 119,” one of the nine songs off their newest, self-titled album, and transitioned beautifully into “Cuckoo’s Medley” their expansion of John Hartford’s “Cuckoo’s Nest.”
One of the aspects I admire most about Railroad is their ability to adapt American classics and at the same time create their own. There are too few musicians playing today who speak to our shared present as well as our past, and who can draw from a variety of experiences and fuse them together in such a cohesive whole.
Whether it’s Andy Goessling who can play two saxes simultaneously, the banjo, the dobro, the mandolin, the flute, the pennywhistle, or the acoustic guitar, or John Skehan on the bouzouki or the mandolin, you know that this band is doing something new and beautiful with their music. Tim Carbone is the epitome of a rock star on the violin, although the electric guitar (and even on occasion the maracas), suit him just as well. Carey Harmon, forgotten if only because of his location in the back, is an extremely talented percussionist and proves that drummers can be all consumed in the rhythm and still manage to harmonize brilliantly. Andrew Altman, who joined the group less than four years ago, has brought an entirely new dynamic with his bass playing. Todd Sheaffer is the lifeblood of the band, and one of the most talented songwriters touring today.
The audience was treated to a handful of his originals on Saturday, including my favorites “Long Walk Home,” the very personal “A Day on the Sand,” followed by a “Mourning Flies” that made its way flawlessly into “Lone Croft Farewell.” Those were the four songs I knew they were going to play (from studying set lists, intuition, and sheer willpower) and since they were all played in the first set, the second was a mystery to me. That is what a good band can do: give you what you want and then give you what you were not expecting. Highlights of the second set included “The Forecast,” “Storms” and a “Black Elk Speaks” that segued into the most impressive track off Railroad Earth, the long and winding “Spring-Heeled Jack.” Listen to this song and you will know that it requires quite a comedown, especially for those who are familiar with the intricacies of it. It starts with a very dirty bass, and goes through periods of what can best be described as fake musical dissonance, that opens up to extremely clear, and flowing instrumentals. It is the best kind of instrumental, where the body knows the words and anxiously awaits the musical unraveling.
The last song of the set was a duet with Amy Helm, a cover of Woody Guthrie’s “Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key.” It takes remarkably talented voices to pull off that particular cover, and Amy and Todd did so flawlessly, bringing an American classic to the ears of many who would otherwise never have had the opportunity to hear it live. One song is not enough however, and no encore is no way to end a show. Unsure of who to blame, and determined not to be upset with the band, I fault the State Theater: what difference would a five minute encore make?
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