Railroad Earth on track for three nights at Belly Up Aspen
IF YOU GO …
Who: Railroad Earth
Where: Belly Up Aspen
When: Tuesday, Jan. 2 through Thursday, Jan. 4
How much: $55/general admission; $70 reserved
Tickets: Belly Up box office; http://www.bellyupaspen.com
The members of Railroad Earth aren’t from Colorado but it’s fair to say the band was born here.
The bluegrass-based jam band had played just a handful of live shows in their native New Jersey and recorded a few demo songs before they landed a slot at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in 2001.
That performance introduced the band to Colorado and to the world. In the ensuing years, it has built a devout following and earned a reputation for fan service and freewheeling shows that use string music as a jumping-point for improvisational musical adventure.
The Railroad Earth faithful are in Aspen this week for the band’s three-night run at Belly Up running today through Thursday. It follows a New Year’s Eve show at Denver’s Paramount Theatre.
When they played that first show in Telluride, the members of Railroad Earth didn’t yet know what the band was or would become.
“I don’t think we had any idea,” mandolin player John Skehan said during a stop in Aspen last winter. “We were just swept up in something, saying, ‘What is this thing?’ It’s one thing to go in a studio and do some local shows to tune things up and experiment with songs. In that first year and beyond we were just learning what this thing is.”
The band — which took its name from a Jack Kerouac story and joined the canon of great Centennial State songs on its first album with “Colorado” — found its thing with a progressive brand of bluegrass that endeared it to listeners in Colorado, where nontraditional bluegrass in the vein of New Grass Revival and Sam Bush and Leftover Salmon have long been embraced.
“Colorado is receptive to it,” Skehan said. “We were just lucky that Colorado is a place you can come out with bluegrass instruments, put drums behind you, and do some more exploratory improvisation in that context and nobody looks at it as completely bizarre or anything.”
To give back to the state, the band has partnered with the Denver Rescue Mission for its current Colorado tour, in what it’s calling “A Celebration of Human Kindness,” rallying donations in exchange for chances to win tickets and VIP experiences at Railroad Earth shows.
Railroad Earth’s most recent albums are the 2017 EP “Captain Nowhere” and the 2015 Warren Haynes collaboration “Ashes & Dust.” But they’re never the kind of band to hit the road and focus on a single recording or promote their newest material. They often stretch out in multi-night residencies like this week’s three nights at Belly Up, where they’ll rarely repeat themselves, dig deep into their catalog and play covers.
“You do end up in a mindset, where rather than a first set and second set you’re looking at Friday, Saturday, Sunday and the overall arc,” Skehan said. “We change things up night to night, as much to keep ourselves on our toes as to keep the audience interested.”
The band’s connection with its fans is personal — a community has sprouted up around its concerts in the Deadhead tradition. Skehan and his bandmates are grateful to have found this musical family in Colorado and beyond.
“This scene that we’re in — and that we share with so many of our other brother bands out there — you’re blessed because you have a segment of fans who make live music a big part of their lives,” he said. “It’s not, ‘OK, I’m going to go to the Enormo-dome to see Sting once a year.’ They plan their vacations, their lives, their weddings, around going to hear live music. They make it a sacrament of their lives. We’re lucky to share that with them.”
It’s almost time to ring in the new year and if your holiday schedule is shaping up to be as packed as mine, I wish you a well-deserved rest in 2024. In the meantime, it’s our chance to party, and party we shall.