Railroad Earth more than just a jam band
Railroad Earth was born out of jamming. Or at least out of jam sessions. The New Jersey-based acoustic rock sextet came into existence when signer-songwriter Todd Sheaffer sat in on a series of bluegrass jams at the rural northwest New Jersey home of strings maven Andy Goessling.But Railroad Earth wasn’t conceived of as a jam band. The group was a blend of traditional bluegrass and the songs of Sheaffer, who had been frontman of the ’90s roots rock group From Good Homes. When Railroad Earth made its local debut on top of Aspen Mountain in 2002 – its only Aspen appearance to date, before tonight’s show at the Wheeler Opera House – what stood out was how tight the arrangements were, and how concise the soloists played their parts.”One of our mottos from the beginning was to serve the song first,” said mandolinist John Skehan, who is joined in Railroad Earth by fiddler Tim Carbone, singer-guitarist Sheaffer, bassist Johnny Grubb, drummer Carey Harmon, lead singer-guitarist Sheaffer, and Goessling, whose repertoire includes banjo, guitar, dobro, mandolin and tinwhistle. “We aim to deliver just what the song asks for.”It seems like what the songs have been asking for, more and more, is extended jamming. “Elko,” the band’s first live recording, released last week, fits in just six tracks on each of the album’s two discs. The tunes invariably stretch – and stretch – sometimes to 16 minutes. With virtually the same lineup of players as three-plus years ago, Railroad Earth has evolved into something other than what it began as. “It’s taken a while to do exactly what we’re doing,” Skehan said. “I don’t think we had a concrete vision from the beginning. We made musical decisions that seemed right, and we’ve continued to play how we feel. If things work, we try to stretch it a few inches further.””That’s always been an element of the bands that I’ve been in,” Sheaffer added. “But I guess I was a little surprised to see the length of some of the tracks [on “Elko”], like 18 minutes.”But there’s a lot of dynamics and interplay. It’s there for a reason.”Railroad Earth has found prominent fans in the jam realm. Phil Lesh, bassist from the Grateful Dead and leader of the popular Phil & Friends ensemble, invited the band to join him for a series of tunes at his Mardi Gras shows in San Francisco last year. Lesh then sat in with Railroad Earth at a San Francisco concert last spring.Even with improvised segments running to unexpected lengths, it is Sheaffer’s songs that make the most impact – on “Elko” and on Railroad Earth’s three previous studio CDs. Just as Sheaffer wasn’t looking for a jam band, neither was he looking for a bluegrass band. But his songs, rich in nature imagery, rural settings and nostalgic themes, seem marvelously suited to the acoustic setting.”We didn’t want to be looked at as a jam band because we work hard on the songs, the arrangements, the vocals,” Sheaffer said. “There’s a whole lot more than just jamming.”Honkytonk Homeslice opens tonight for Railroad Earth at the Wheeler Opera House. The show starts at 8 p.m. Tickets are $20, available at the Wheeler Box Office.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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