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Published: 2001/10/17
by Brian Ferdman

Railroad Earth, Gordon Stone Band, & Citigrass, Lions Den, NYC- 10/13

On Saturday October 13th, The Lion’s Den in New York City hosted an evening of eclectic music featuring Railroad Earth, Gordon Stone Band, and Citigrass. All three bands featured elements of traditional bluegrass, but as the audience would experience it, the music would delve into many different and unique styles, leaving pre-conceived notions in the dust.

New York’s young and upcoming Citigrass started off the show with what would be the most traditional music of the evening, featuring classic instrumentation of upright bass, flatpicking guitar, mandolin, banjo, and the sweet sounds of James Kerr’s dobro. The dobro is one of the more rare instruments in modern music, and Kerr made the most of it, playing several gentle and mellowed solos. Citigrass’ vocals were led by mandolinist Noah Chase’s clear voice, as he utilized Peter Rowanesque yodels and yelps on “Fall As You Stand” and then blended with guitarist Jordan Shapiro’s harmonies, achieving that high lonesome sound on the traditional “High on a Mountaintop.”

Citigrass may have been the most traditional act of the evening, but that never stopped them from venturing forth into unchartered waters. Not many bluegrass bands would anoint Frank Zappa as “the father of bluegrass,” as Shapiro so aptly put it, but then again, not many bluegrass bands would consider tackling Zappa’s “Lonesome Cowboy Burt” in concert. If that wasn’t weird enough, who in their right mind would expect to hear Madonna’s “Live To Tell” delivered bluegrass style? However, Citigrass avoided a tongue-in-cheek turn on the number, choosing instead to passionately sing the lyrics as seriously as possible in a bluegrass context. The effect was rather strange and somewhat moving before the song kicked into a traditional breakdown ending, with Shapiro and Chase dueling in a ferocious flatpicking style, while bassist Ben Bernstein and banjo player Sandy Israel churned out a heavy backing rhythm.

The Gordon Stone Band took the stage and promptly surprised a lot of the crowd by straying as far from bluegrass as humanly possible. Opening up with “Yesterday’s Coffee,” the trio immediately jumped into a dance-friendly tropical groove. Drummer Russ Lawton wasted no time in kicking out one of his trademark intense rhythms, while bassist Rudy Dauth created a sound that resembled that of a Hammond B-3 organ. Naturally Gordon Stone’s banjo didn’t sound a damn thing like a banjo, but that was to be expected.

“Yesterday’s Coffee” was certainly a change of pace from the traditional sounds of Citigrass, but things continued to get stranger and stranger. At first a Los Lobos cover resembled a twisted 1960s surf guitar song blended with a dark mariachi number. Then Stone invited Andy Morroz (from the Trey Anastasio Band) to add trombone to a song. Hello funk, thy name is banjo. One would not expect a banjo to be capable of cranking out intense funk, but Stone was intent on shattering all sorts of musical barriers on this evening. After Morroz got warmed up and felt comfortable, he began to let loose and traded some raunchy licks with Stone, followed by a very smooth, struttin’ bass solo from Dauth. Lawton added another one of his classic breakbeats and Moroz topped it with another nice solo.

The styles continued to bounce all over the map until “Sunday Driver” brought the band back down to Earth, somewhere close to the hills of Kentucky. Not content to stay in one place, they took a little jaunt down to the zydeco country of New Orleans before heading down to Kingston, Jamaica for the reggae feel of “Dread Banjo.” Yes, that’s correctreggae on a banjo, which Stone would abandon mid-song for the more logical reggae instrument, the pedal steel!

The rest of the set bounced back and forth from funk, with Dauth adding big basslines and Morroz mixing in jazzy trombone riffs, to heavy reggae, courtesy of Lawton’s pounding drums, to fast ska, with Stone strumming quick rhythms and defying the laws of the banjo. At one point, the band encapsulated nearly every style of the evening in one song. Lawton began with another tribal beat to which Stone added an oddly happy sound. Then everything suddenly shifted to the world of disco. Dauth was barely able to contain himself on a wicked slap bass solo before Lawton erupted into one of his long and ferocious drum breaks. Stone and Dauth joined him on hand percussion as he pounded the skins with authority. Just when everyone thought that the band would explode back in on the climax, they went the opposite direction and dropped the volume down several decibels. It was a choice that totally defied logic, but somehow, just like every problem the Gordon Stone Band tackled, they made it work.

Railroad Earth finally took the stage to provide a happy medium between the traditions of Citigrass and the barrier-breaking madness of the Gordon Stone Band. Opening up with a rollicking version of “Cold Water,” Todd Sheaffer’s harmonica got the train chugging, and within 45 seconds the crowd was on board and dancing. Then the fiddle breakdown of “Fire On The Mountain” allowed Tim Carbone to show off his chops while pulling out a strange mix of jazzy Eastern European and Colonial American riffs in his diverse soloing. “Fire On The Mountain” was an ironic choice because the room was starting to heat up at a rapid pace, and by the time Sheaffer churned out a nice looping solo on “Bird In The House,” he was already sweatier than a French whore in mid-July.

The intense heat clearly affected the “Head” that followed. The tempo lagged on this song and prevented it from becoming it’s typical raging self. Nevertheless, it didn’t stop Andy Goessling from thumping out a big banjo solo, which Sheaffer followed with another interesting and winding solo. Mandolinist John Skehan and Goessling then engaged in a little trading of licks, but the slower pace seemed to mellow every one of Skehan’s offerings. Even though the crowd was most appreciative, this number never took off like it should.

A few slower, shuffling songs passed without incident, and just when the heat was looking to be a major detriment to the performance, “Ragtime Annie Lee” arrived on the scene to rescue the tempos. Heat be damned, this song shot off into the stratosphere, and when the breakdown section began, everyone kicked it into hyperdrive. The Railroad Earth engine was now stocked with fuel, and the train was blazing down the track. At the close of the song, the crowd went beserk, and the slower “Birds of America” that followed was actually a welcomed break from a pace that had suddenly jumped to a breakneck speed. The tempo may have slowed but the intensity remained throughout a long winding jam that dissolved into an eerie chorus.

“Birds of America” jammed directly into the showpiece of the evening, “Stillwater Getaway.” As the chorus broke down into the softer section, Sheaffer slid into the mix with a lyrical solo that seemed to tell a story with its twists and turns. Goessling then assumed the throne with some fierce flatpicking before Skehan jumped in and raised the bar on a quick solo, proving that the mandolinist brought his “A-game” to the party. Carbone then joined in to bring the song down to a slower, jazzier section with a driving beat. This was about as far away from bluegrass as Railroad Earth gets, and the band relished the new jazzy figures they had discovered. Finally, Carbone unleashed an attack and everyone followed as Carey Harmon’s throbbing drumbeats built the tension until the entire band exploded into the fray on the climax. The audience was stunned because Railroad Earth was now playing at an unparalleled level.

“Black Bear” followed, and the crowd reacted in typical New York fashion. You can say what you want about New Yorkers becoming suddenly more friendly and courteous in the last month, but one thing has stayed the same: New Yorkers love to talk over the soft songs. The “Walk On By” that followed didn’t fare much better with the talkers, but many people down front took note of the song’s fitting and somber post-apocalyptic lyrics that Sheaffer delivered with passion. Not wasting any time, the band got the crowd moving with a percolating “Dandelion Wine” before taking an impromptu intermission.

The second set was much shorter, but the break weeded-out the socialites who came to the show to talk. Faced with a crowd of people who were really into the music, the band seemed to savor the moment. “Luxury Liner” burst out of nowhere, and Carbone immediately started soaring. Following the vocals, Goessling tried to match him with some more rapid flatpicking. By this time, the John Skehan machine was running on all cylinders, and he boldly attempted to blow everyone off the stage before Carbone added some powerful chords, leading into a monstrous ending.

Both “Sing For Me” and “Everything Comes Together” utilized impassioned vocals that struck a chord with the devoted audience. Finally, the encore of “Seven Story Mountain” closed the evening with a bang, courtesy of Carey Harmon’s thunderous drums.

Overall, the entire evening ventured from Planet Bluegrass out to Planet Neptune and then boomeranged back to some strange space in between the two. The music traversed landscapes far and near, and by the time the crowd trickled out into the streets of Greenwich Village, there was only one place left to travel: home.

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