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All aboard: Railroad Earth makes two stops in Aspen

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Courtesy Tsunami PublicityNew Jersey band Railroad Earth plays two shows Friday in Aspen - a free downtown concert as part of the Aspen Skiing Company's Core Party, and a late-night show at Belly Up Aspen.
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ASPEN – When Railroad Earth had its career-making appearance at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, it wasn’t reputation or hype or extensive radio play that carried the day.

Railroad Earth – who had an early-day slot, just after the winners of the Telluride Band Competition, at the 2001 festival – had played all of nine shows prior to hitting the main stage at one of the country’s premiere acoustic-music gatherings. All of those appearances had been in the band’s home region, around the border of western New Jersey and Pennsylvania, where they played in bars and at the Shindig, a festival of traditional bluegrass music held at the Elks Lodge in East Stroudsburg, Penn. Railroad Earth had no proper album to promote; the band, which had formed out of a casual picking session at singer-songwriter Todd Sheaffer’s home, had a five-song demo, “The Black Bear Sessions,” that had made some rounds in the bluegrass world and got into the hands of Planet Bluegrass, the group that presents the Telluride Bluegrass Festival.

Those early gigs on their home turf – a rural part of the Northeast where a bunch of guys getting together by a barn with mandolins and fiddles is no contradiction – didn’t create a swell of hype. “They didn’t know quite what to make of us. There was an element of befuddlement. They didn’t know what we were doing; we weren’t playing bluegrass. We were doing our own songs, something different,” recalled Tim Carbone, the band’s fiddler, of the Shindig gig. “But we soldiered through. Then we did a couple of bar gigs. Then it was get in a van and head to Colorado.”

Colorado, and the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, proved most hospitable for the band’s brand of acoustic music, a mix of Celtic, folk and rock played with the stretch-it-out-and-see-where-it-goes mentality of a jam band. Arriving in Telluride in a beat-up van and the trailer Carbone had used with previous bands, and appearing alongside artists whose albums they collected – John Hiatt, Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss – the group was given a nice welcome.

“There was already kind of a buzz. Some people who had seen us had written in chat rooms. So there was a smattering of anticipation – people saying, ‘Oh, let’s go see what they’ve got,'” Carbone said from his Pennsylvania home. The show was a major success. “We did a CD signing afterward, and by the time we got to the tables, there were over a hundred people waiting in line who had already bought the CD. There was an element of validation, and we said, ‘OK, we’ve got to keep on rolling.'”

What they had were songs. Sheaffer, the principal songwriter in Railroad Earth, borrowed several tunes from his previous band, the roots-rockers From Good Homes, and had whipped up a batch of new ones for the budding band. The lyrics were warm and poetic, connected to the landscape and family history, philosophy and poetry, and a grasp of core American culture. The rest of the band – mandolinist John Skehan; Andy Goessling, who played bluegrass instruments (banjo, guitar) and non-bluegrass instruments (flute, saxophone); bassist Dave Von Dollen; and Carbone on fiddle – fleshed out those songs with melody, energy and an approach to jamming that emphasized teamwork over individual soloing.

“I think it’s the songs,” Carbone said of Railroad Earth’s appeal. “For the most part, the jam-band scene is not necessarily known for its songs. But Todd’s a singular songwriter and that’s a singular thing we do. The songs speak to you; people can see themselves in the lyrics. They depict their own lives. I always get someone telling me that a song helped them with something in their lives.”

And while jam bands are often known for fostering a sense of community among their followers – Deadheads, Phish Phans, Spreadheads – Railroad Earth (whose followers often refer to themselves as “Hobos”) builds a feeling of the communal into their songs. The songs tend to speak of “We” rather than “I.” “Storms” is about a couple pulling together to survive: “All these storms I know we’ll weather/ All these storms we’ll ride together.” There are songs about a collective American experience: “Jupiter and the 119” is about connecting America’s East and West with the first trans-continental train, and the celebration it touched off. Many of the lyrics play off an appreciation of the natural world: “Mighty River,” “Way of the Buffalo,” “Colorado.” The few covers tunes they do – the Band’s “Acadian Driftwood,” the Grateful Dead’s “The Wheel” and “Casey Jones,” Tom Waits’ “Cold Water”; Peter Rowan’s “Walls of Time” – seem thoughtfully picked to fit in with their own songs. And while Sheaffer’s words don’t turn away from tragedy and pain, there is an overall sense of optimism in the music.

“The way we frame the songs musically has an element of uplift, a community spirit,” Carbone said. “The whole package makes people think their lives mean something. The melodicism, the way we approach the songs – we allow them to be journeys. They’re open invitations for people to come along with us, and that appeals to the kind of crowd who comes to see us.”

The promise of gig number 10 – that was the one on the mainstage at Telluride Bluegrass – has been fulfilled. Railroad Earth has released four more studio albums since “The Black Bear Sessions,” including a self-titled effort released in 2010. (Carbone said the band probably won’t be recording its next album till the fall.) With a drummer – Carey Harmon, who also carries a nice tune – filling out the sound, the band has been welcomed to America’s biggest stages. This summer will find Railroad Earth at rock festivals (All Good, Wakarusa, High Sierra), and at bluegrass festivals that lean toward the traditional (DelFest). They will also play Red Rocks, co-headlining with Umphrey’s McGee. Last year, back in Telluride, they had the honor of being the Friday night closer.

On Friday, the band – now with bassist Andrew Altman, who joined in 2010 – pulls double duty. They play a free show in the Aspen Skiing Company’s downtown Core Party at 8 p.m., with an 11 p.m. Belly Up Aspen gig afterward.

The gigs come on the heels of some noteworthy activity. Last week, Railroad Earth sold out a two-night stand at the Fillmore in San Francisco; one night had Phil Lesh, the former Grateful Dead bassist sitting in for a few songs, including “Terrapin Station.” Railroad Earth members Carbone, Goessling and Skehan returned the favor by joining Lesh during the opening dates at Lesh’s new San Rafael venue, Terrapin Crossroads.

Carbone hadn’t been much of a Deadhead in his formative years. But playing in Railroad Earth, and developing a friendship with Lesh, has given him an appreciation for the message the Dead sent via their songs.

“It’s not like we ever said, ‘Hey we should be like the Grateful Dead,’ Carbone said. “But the parallels – lyrically, Robert Hunter” – the Dead’s primary lyricist – “brings a lot to the table that Todd brings. They can speak on multiple level to lots of people, because they are specific enough that you can relate to them, but they’re not ultra-personal.”

stewart@aspentimes.com


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