Coming up smiling: Railroad Earth at Belly Up
The Aspen Times
In its show Sunday at Belly Up, Railroad Earth’s setlist included just one song title with the word “smilin’” in it: the fourth tune of the night, the swaying crowd favorite “Came Up Smilin’.” (“Like a Buddha” doesn’t quite count, but it should — the lyric that gets repeated is “You’re smilin’ like a Buddha.”) It only seemed like every other song should have had “smilin’” — or “joy,” “contentedness” or some variation on the theme — in the title. And this was without another of the band’s tunes, “Happy Song,” being on Sunday’s setlist.
Railroad Earth, a New Jersey-centered sextet, sure hits a sweet spot. The crowd that turned up for the sold-out Belly Up show seemed to arrive prepared for ecstasy. Young and shaggy, many wore loose skirts in anticipation of twirling. Cranking up the celebratory factor, it was the final show of a three-night Colorado run that had included the band’s first headlining gig at Red Rocks, and most of the fans — sometimes referred to as “Hobos” — had gone along for the full ride.
As well as any band ever has, Railroad Earth invites its crowd into the trip; the barrier between musicians and audience is all but nonexistent. Much of this has to do with the band members’ demeanor: They mingle with fans between sets, and the audience has inside jokes with them. (In the song “Elko,” which was not played Sunday night, when lead singer and songwriter Todd Sheaffer sings the line “I need a card/Hit me man, not too hard,” he can count on having a bunch of playing cards flung his way.)
Sheaffer’s lyrics are wide-open for people to step into. He uses the plainest language, well-rooted in folk songs, to talk about universal themes: the environment, family, yearning and regret, American history and, perhaps most of all, community. Musically, there are numerous touchstones, including bluegrass, folk, blues and a big splash of Celtic, thanks to Tim Carbone’s inspired fiddling. Railroad Earth also fits comfortably into the jam-band realm, but its long instrumental passages, instead of being built on one musician’s soloing, are more about a coordinated swapping of lines, which goes a long way toward establishing that all-for-one, one-for-all camaraderie.
It is an agreeable mix of personalities onstage. Carbone, nearly as shaggy as any Hobo with his curly, silvery hair, is the most exuberant of the bunch, driving the sound with his fiddle. Sheaffer, who dominates the lead singing, is no showman; he speaks with his songs. But he has become more comfortable as the center of the action and conveys a quiet, pleased vibe. Mandolinist John Skehan, the third member of the front line, never smiles; he is too busy pouring thoughtful, purposeful energy into his instrument. Andy Goessling is the nearly invisible jack of all trades; in Sunday’s show, he played banjo, guitar, mandolin, flute and saxophones — two at once. You get the sense he might be the glue integral to the band’s chemistry.
There is a sense of humor to the band, which comes through in “Donkey for Sale,” which blends old-fashioned silliness (“Old man Stew burned his house down in a fire/Put his britches in the oven and his pork chops in the dryer”) and the wry observation that “New Jersey ain’t what it used to be.”
While Railroad Earth can seem to chug along in upbeat mode, it does cover the wide emotional range. Sunday night featured “Way of the Buffalo,” which hints at past follies and at more missteps ahead. “Ain’t it a shame?/Feels so lame,” Sheaffer sings. “Been Down This Road,” one of Sheaffer’s finest pieces, is another lament, with a dark edge: “Been around I wore those shadows/That sooner or later drag you down.”
Outside, after the show, a friend expressed disappointment that Railroad Earth had ended the show with the slow, contemplative gospel number “Soul of a Man.” The song, built around harmony vocals, conveys a different kind of happiness: “I shall spend eternity/Where the soul of a man never dies.” No stomping Irish fiddle break, no dance-happy rhythm — but it sure left me smiling.
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