Review: Railroad Earth invites all aboard at Belly Up Aspen
September 11, 2009
ASPEN – The tradition of having Warren Haynes close Aspen’s Labor Day Weekend came to an inexplicable end (or, let’s hope, just had a one-year respite) last weekend. For three Labor Days, the stamina-laden guitarist appeared for a late-night Belly Up concert (once leading his band, Gov’t Mule; twice in rare solo, acoustic gigs). This year’s absence was especially odd in light of the fact that Haynes was here, appearing Sunday night on the mainstage of the Labor Day Festival as part of the Allman Brothers Band.
Still, the tradition of ending Labor Day on a high musical night, with a special late-night treat at Belly Up, continued. In Haynes’ place chugged Railroad Earth, a New Jersey acoustic sextet that was making its Belly Up debut, and its first Aspen appearance since a modestly attended Wheeler Opera House show in January 2006. In the ensuing three and a half years, the band has picked up a lot of followers – Hobos, in the parlance of our times – and many of the ticketless wandered outside Belly Up Sunday night, begging for a ticket to ride. Inside, it was as if half of Boulder had made the trip. The band rode in on a wave of glory; the previous night they had made their Red Rocks debut, with fiddler Tim Carbone joining the headlining Allman Brothers Band onstage.
Railroad Earth does not have an ultra-charismatic leader, à la Jerry Garcia or Trey Anastasio. Their lead singer, Todd Sheaffer, talks a little, blinks a lot behind his glasses, and gives the impression of being a mild-mannered singer-songwriter who is a bit surprised to find himself at the front of a band on the verge of being a sensation.
Railroad Earth also lacks a flaming-hot musician to serve as the instrumental focal point; there is no equivalent of a Warren Haynes. Or, to keep it in the acoustic world, a Chris Thile, a Bela Fleck, a Jerry Douglas. Instead, solos are divvied up between several good pickers: Carbone; mandolinist John Skehan; Andy Goessling, who jumps from banjo to guitar, with an occasional turn on saxophone; and Sheaffer, who has shown vast improvement as a guitarist.
The group effort might be the key to their wide appeal. Sheaffer is a first-rate songwriter – I’m talking Hunter-Garcia, Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams company, in there with everybody else looking up at Bob Dylan – and his songs on the whole have a “We’re all in this same struggle together” theme. They are perfect vehicles for the well-coordinated, ego-free, solo-swapping that goes on within Railroad Earth. They invite the audience to climb aboard. And when the band breaks into one of their more celebratory tunes – Sunday night, those included “Real Love” – it is a moment of release and redemption.
I had one bone of contention with the Belly Up show. Song after song went by, without one of my favorites being played. And I’m not talking two or three songs, but eight, maybe 10. The next day, while searching for a digital version of the Red Rocks show, I saw why: They had played virtually every one of them the night before.
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So I saw a show, at the end of a looong weekend, that featured none of my favorite songs, but still managed to take its place among my most memorable concerts. That’s saying something.
I’m not sure I’ll ever self-apply the “Hobo” handle. But clearly I’m along for the ride with Railroad Earth.