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Railroad Earth, State Theatre, Falls Church, VA 9/22

This has been one helluva year for Railroad Earth. I first heard about these guys from a friend who had downloaded some of their early demos back in April. I was at their third show at Wetlands on May 5th and I was struck then at how good they were for such a new band. But four months, dozens of shows, performances at a number of major festivals and a critically acclaimed album can do an awful lot for a band.

The State Theatre is a beautiful venue with an exceptionally good sound system that actually sounds good in every point of the room. Railroad Earth hit the stage at 9pm sharp and tore right into “Lordy Lordy” from their debut album, The Black Bear Sessions. It was the perfect show-opener with Carey Harmon’s tom-heavy drums pounding behind a classic mountain groove. From there they went into “Bird in a House,” a beautifully melodic tune with a catchy chorus. Todd Sheaffer’s lead vocals really shined on this one and the three part harmonies were spot-on. You could really feel the players opening up during the jam with Todd taking a solo that brought the band up several levels. “Head,” which also kicks off their album followed and the jam really took things up a notch, with Andy Goessling’s virtuoso banjo rolling that becomes the backdrop for a rollicking rock guitar solo played by Todd. Then Tim Carbone’s trippy ambient violin cut through the mix, followed by John Skehan’s dynamic mandolin solo which segued smoothly into a building trade-off jam between Skehan and Carbone that brings the entire six piece ensemble to a fever pitch. Some straight-ahead bluegrass picking followed with the standard “Ragtime Annie Lee.” On this tune, multi-instrumentalist Andy Goessling plays guitar and sings the single lead verse. I was impressed by his classic bluegrass picking style, and Carbone’s incredible fiddle playing. I should mention that drummer, Carey Harmon, sings the majority of the background vocals with great energy and precision. The entire band’s ability to move so adeptly from style to style is just one of the things that impresses me.

Railroad Earth was opened for the Recipe on this evening and as the set progressed the band really seemed to win over the Recipe faithful. “Stillwater Getaway,” a fast picking bluegrass instrumental was another highlight. Mid-way through the band switched gears and went off into a dynamic jam that began with a steady double-time backbeat behind the band laying low through ambient fills, and ended with all the players aggressively jamming and the energy building and building until it peaked and smoothly slid right back into the opening riff and out.

From the opening jazzy bass riffs provided by upright bassist Dave Von Dollen, to the final celtic flavored turnaround ending, “Black Bear” was another strong offering. The jam in this moody epic reminds me a bit of The Dead’s “Bird Song”, and gives me the same feeling in my abdomen I would get from the later. Todd’s voice comes off as sweet and wistful over the jazzy groove that pulses throughout the verses, and then erupts as the entire band joins in the repeated chorus of “BLACK BEA-A-AR!!!”

In my opinion, the highest point of the night was“I Am a Mess.” This song kicked off with a funky groove that began with Todd’s guitar before the whole band dug their heels in. The groove was so tight and funky and all the more impressive because these sounds were being created with acoustic instruments. I couldn’t make out all the lyrics, but I could tell by the expression on Todd’s face that he found them funny. I think he was singing, “God I must confess I am a mess”. This song went off into a jam that clocked in at around fifteen minutes, if that tells you anything. At this point, people were getting down hard, and the band deserved that reciprocal energy.

Last up was “Fire On the Mountain”. No, I’m not referring to the Grateful Dead tune, but instead an old bluegrass number updated by Railroad Earth to sound vital and grooving. The stops and starts in the arrangement are fun as hell, and it was a great way to close the show. They also teased us with a little musical reference to the Dead tune of the same name, which made many of us smile.

I am quite impressed with how far this band has come in such a short time. When I first saw them at Wetlands four months ago I thought they were a good band in the making. After seeing them the other night, I would have to say that Railroad Earth has truly arrived at the station.

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