Elko – Railroad Earth
Sci Fidelity 1030
A little over five years ago, Railroad Earth gave the music industry a lesson in grassroots marketing. After recording a mere five-song demo, they generated tremendous word-of-mouth hype, thanks to the World Wide Web. The demo and hype helped them secure a slot at the prestigious Telluride Bluegrass Festival, and — once audiences witnessed their talents onstage — their fan base began its rapid growth spurt. In the years that have followed, Railroad Earth has recorded three studio albums, with each successive album growing in depth and maturity. Now, for the first time, their live sound has been captured on the double album, Elko.
As evidenced by the sprightly Colonial-era reel that crops up at the close of “Colorado,” the pickers in Railroad Earth have tremendous dexterity and skill. Naturally, many live acts have skilled musicians, but Railroad Earth’s ability to craft a beautiful song sets them apart from other bands. Stirring ballads, such as “Bird In a House” and “Railroad Earth” drip with gentle emotion, while jubilant numbers, such as “Old Man and The Land” and “Like a Buddha” crackle with bouncy optimism.
Much of the songwriting falls on the shoulders of lead singer/guitarist Todd Sheaffer, who frequently mines the back catalog of his former band, From Good Homes. Once Railroad Earth wraps their 12 nimble hands around these old chestnuts, the songs are immediately transformed into unique compositions that sound as if the band was born to play them.
Nowhere is this more evident than on the raucous “Warhead Boogie.” After allowing Carey Harmon’s funky drumbeat to percolate, Johnny Grubb jumps in on the action to lay down a nasty bassline. Shortly thereafter, Sheaffer sings his ironically relevant lyrics about lusting for nuclear weapons. Within minutes, the entire band finds themselves boogieing deep in the midst of an intense jam that hovers on the cusp of floating out to space. Then Grubb and Harmon drop back down into the funky groove. Sheaffer uses his electrified guitar to dole out a few psychedelic lines while Tim Carbone sends his violin swirling over the top. John Skehan and Andy Goessling each toss in some eerie tremolo picking to add to the growing mnge of weirdness. Fifteen minutes into its flight, this warhead has reached the stratosphere.
Every band wants to avoid the dreaded “jamband” label, and Railroad Earth has publicly tried their best to avoid being pigeonholed by the media as an aimless bunch of space noodlers. However, it’s one thing to make public statements that distance yourself from the jamband idiom, but when five of your live album’s twelve songs top eleven minutes, there’s bound to be some jamming. Of course, when the jamming exists purely to service the songs (as it does so well on Elko), meaningless labels are left in the dust, and the amplified string band sounds of Railroad Earth are rightly placed in a category of their own.
Perhaps the greatest feature of this energetic live album is the crystal-clear mix. Thanks to some impressive engineering, every instrument has a precise and easily definable place within the sonic landscape. It’s remarkably easily to pin-point the complex lines of each bandmember, and with an often frenetic sextet, this is no small feat. One can drink in each glorious note as Carbone and Skehan duel from opposite sides of the stage. Every cymbal hit and every fingerpick sounds as if it’s happening right in front of you. In short, the superior mix of Elko gives listeners the ability to hear a Railroad Earth show as they’ve never heard it before, crisp, pristine, and from a spot onstage with the band. It’s the perfect place to hear such an engaging live performance, and fans will surely savor the opportunity.