Review - Railroad Earth
The Egg, Sept. 19
In the old-school bluegrass of Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, and Flatt and Scruggs, when you soloed, you more or less stuck to the melody of the song. The 1970s saw newgrass, sired by pickers like David Grisman and Tony Rice, which took the jazz approach of playing freely over the changes while, of course, the older players looked on and bemoaned the improvisational heresies. Now there’s jamgrass, the bluegrass-jamband hybrid, where you take bluegrass, add drums, and then periodically step outside the harmonic building for spacey interludes of Appalachian ragas over one or two-chord vamps. Railroad Earth, a capable acoustic sextet from New Jersey who performed a set of mostly originals for a woefully small crowd at the Egg on Saturday, are among the headmasters of this genre. Too bad that an otherwise fine show suffered from frequently unintelligible singing.
Railroad Earth are fronted by former From Good Homes songwriter Todd
Sheaffer on guitar and lead vocals; the sidemen are Tim Carbone on
fiddle, John Skehan on mandolin and bouzouki, Carey Harmon on drums,
Johnny Grubb on upright bass, and Andy Goessling on acoustic guitars,
banjo, mandolin, and saxophones. Although neither Carbone nor Skehan
were slouches on their axes, Goessling stood out with his stylistic as
well as instrumental versatility: He could play sassy swing lines on sax
as well as full-tilt bluegrass on at least three fretted instruments.
They opened with a bounding Bill Monroe instrumental, “Old Dangerfield,” and you could see why they’ve been playing top bluegrass festivals—their picking was spot-on. Next was their “Dandelion Wine,” sung by Sheaffer. His tenor vocals were quite nasal, but clothespin-on-the-nose singing is after all an old bluegrass tradition. Throughout the set, however, only occasional lines of Sheaffer’s mumbled lyrics could be made out, and I doubt anyone hearing Railroad Earth for the first time knew what many of the songs were about.
Still, their fluid, energetic playing was a pleasure to hear. “The Forecast” and “Stillwater Getaway” had roomy space sections, and “Birds of America” was an affably goofy tribute to ornithology. They ended with a peppy old-time fiddle breakdown, “Little Rabbit.”
Opening the show were Elephant Revival, a Colorado-based acoustic quintet whose music tended toward the vacuous and whose laconic chops, with the notable exception of fiddler Bridget Law, failed to excite. The jewel of the band, though, was the lovely alto Bonnie Paine, who, when she got her all too few turns at the mic, proved to be the best singer of the night. Elephant Revival ought to give her the lion’s share of the vocals and let her shine as the leader of the pachyderms.
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