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Published: 2001/06/17
by Brian Ferdman

Railroad Earth- Tribeca Blues, 6/14

Quite often something new gets overexposed and promoted so much that one feels as though he or she is stuck in a scene reminiscent of A Clockwork Orange, as ideas and thoughts are crammed down one’s throat. This force-feeding of hype often results in the desire to vomit and purge all of the ingested information just like a supermodel rids herself of a porterhouse steak dinner. By the same token, when I stood in front of Railroad Earth last night, I thought that I would surely puke all over their mandolin player.

A few weeks ago the new acoustic bluegrassy outfit known as Railroad Earth began to receive enthusiastic emails and reviews on the String Cheese Incident’s email Incidentalist ( A few posts initiated a wave of hype. Suddenly everyone was talking about this band that very few had seen or heard. Five lonely mp3 files existed in cyberspace, and that was what most people knew about Railroad Earth. Nevertheless, the emails continued to pile up, and someone smelled a conspiracy. Was this just a brilliant marketing ploy to generate buzz for an unknown band? It sure looked like it to me. To make matters worse, an opportunistic New York promoter latched onto the hype and scheduled a show for a small club. Naturally, he had to keep the wave of spam flowing, and I couldn’t open an email digest without reading 2 or 3 posts about this upcoming Railroad Earth gig. By 5:00 yesterday evening, I knew more about this Railroad Earth show than my own life. Everywhere I turned I would see a train and a globe; symbols were haunting me. I kept hearing this chugga-chugga sound racing through my head. My stomach began to curdle, and I felt the regurgitation of hype was unavoidable.

I arrived at Tribeca Blues toward the end of bluesman David Kolker’s set. The songs were nice but very mellow. It wasn’t what I wanted to hear. To make matters worse, he asked the crowd if we wanted him to take a break and play more. I was in the back of the bar, and I didn’t hear any response, but he must have either heard something or he his telekinetic powers told him that the crowd was silently begging for another set, so he took a short break.

I was less than thrilled about hearing another set. It was already pretty late, and it was a school night, so most of us were already looking at waking up at the ass crack of dawn after a long night, and there was no need to make a long night any longer. In addition, I didn’t understand how the opening band gets to decide how many sets he plays. Correct me if I’m wrong, but Mr. Kolker must have broken rule #26b of the Ye Olde Opening Band Etiquette Handbook.

The unexpected Set Two had much more energy, and it featured a nice little jam with Cissy Strut. However, the sound started aspiring toward a deafening volume, and that made life a little miserable. Apparently, the soundman forgot lesson 12 from Acoustics 101: How to mix for a small room with exposed brick walls.

Well Railroad Earth finally took the stage as the clock was pushing midnight. I got up in front within vomit distance from the musicians, and my stomach acid began to rumble. However, they opened with a ripping version of Cold Water, and that came down on me like a Pepto Bismol from Heaven. It was suddenly evident that these cats had some skill, and I really enjoyed the flatpicking of Andy Goessling, as he flew across the strings with an unusual ease. A few more songs followed, and I could no longer spell the word vomit, much less think about the action. Without realizing it, I was slowly being sucked into the Railroad Earth borg.

I noticed a girl behind me was singing the lyrics, so I asked her how she knew the band so well because I only knew 5 mp3s. We instantly became friends. Big mistake. For the next seven songs, the band would get cooking in a jam, and I would just start to get lost in the music when she would tap me on the shoulder and say, “See this is what I love about them. They can just jam and then you get lost in the music. This is why they’re just like the Grateful Dead” Well, I was lost until she found me. I wanted to get lost again.

It was no use. The narrator kept talking to me during every jam, intent on describing everything that I was experiencing as though I were incapable of comprehending the music. It was really bizarre because she kept repeating my thoughts, but she was on a 30-second delay. I’m sure that she had noble intentions, but her narration was bothering me, and I didn’t know how to politely say, “DEAR GOD! LEAVE ME ALONE!” So I calmly grooved away, and she latched onto another poor unsuspecting soul. By the end of the night, she had run through a string of battered and mentally-bruised men.

Meanwhile Railroad Earth was experiencing a unique mathematical phenomenon. Now I’m about as skilled at math as I am at writing short reviews, so I don’t know how to describe this phenomenon. In layman’s terms, the show kept getting better and better. More specifically, the energy was just racing faster and faster, and it kept increasing exponentially until the room was ready to explode during the last song. I had never seen a band improve over the course of one night in this pattern, and I was drawn aback by this experience.

At the same time, the musicians were showing off their serious chops. Lead singer Todd Sheaffer was adding a strange psychedelic element with his acoustic guitar’s meandering solos that were run through a digital delay pedal. He was a perfect contrast to Goessling’s flatpicking, but Goessling wasn’t content to stay on one guitar. No, he had to grab a banjo, a mandolin, another acoustic, a dobro, and he tore up each new weapon. If this guy had a Jew’s harp handy he could probably melt your mind on that too.

John Skehan’s mandolin began in a very reserved and timid manner, but as the energy increased, his ego followed suit, and I mean that in a good way. He slowly busted out of his shell until he was leading the charge by the end of the evening. His sparring with Goessing’s mandolin on Frank Wakefield’s New Camptown Races was a sight to behold. A lot of the credit for Skehan’s emergence should go to violin machine Tim Carbone, who frequently engaged Skehan in duels, as their interplay brought one another to a peak level of musicianship. And what can I say about Mr. Carbone except that in the beginning of the night I thought he was a very good violinist. By the end of the night I thought he was godlike. I have never seen a fiddler attack the music like this man. I can only compare him to the revered master Vassar Clements, but Senor Carbone is way more aggressive.

Over the course of the evening the band showed lots of diversity in its sound, as the themes would range from traditional bluegrass to Irish to psychedelic to butt-shaking acoustic funk. Yes, they really did lay down some serious acoustic butt-shaking funk, courtesy of the tight rhythm section of drummer Carey Harmon and upright bassist Dave Von Dollen.

After several glances at the time and multiple complex calculations of the time to catch a cab back to Queens multiplied by the cost of cab fare divided by the few hours of sleep ahead, I was relieved when the band finally stopped playing. I should have gone home at least an hour before I left the venue, but I stayed because the music wouldn’t allow me to leave. Vomit be dammed, Railroad Earth put on one helluva show.

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