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Published: 2001/11/12
by Dean Barnett

Railroad Earth, Colorado College, Colorado Springs, CO – 11/8

There are some days when you feel your white dove of happy destiny has
morphed into a black-clawed vulture of despair and depression, as though you
were Jerry Falwell suddenly parachuted naked into downtown Kabul wearing a
big sign in Arabic that says, "Allah Sucks".

This wasn't one of those days: there was, however, a clearance sale at the
Twisted Metaphor Store, and I do love to shop. Instead, it was a fairly
typical day for your Humble Scribe, one that included the usual domestic
schedule, classes, some study time, and a couple of hours at the part time
job. Along about 5:30, though, a peculiar curdling in my everyday reality
became apparent, and I found myself traveling with the most beautiful woman
in the world (who oddly enough agreed to marry me anyway) northward from the
high plains of southern Colorado toward the thriving military-industrial
metropolitan of Colorado Springs, hoping to locate the fabled campus of
Colorado College, where, we had learned the afternoon before, Railroad Earth
was making an appearance in Armstrong Hall. Show time 8:00 pm, Admission
free.

We arrived after dark, armed only with a confirmation of the date and time
from the website, but without a clear idea of where the school was or which
building the show would actually be held in, our last visit here having been
five years ago in daylight. After a brisk wander about (it snowed the night
before and was chilly) we located a darkened window with a drum riser
backlighted from open doors on the far side. Squarecumnavigating the building,
we entered open doors to find the band's equipment and instruments on a
small riser near the far opposite wall and windows and the soundboard set up
about halfway to the door. This is a theatre lobby with a mezzanine level
perhaps 20 feet overheard. The space is rectangular, about 25 feet wide and
maybe 60 feet long. Apparently, the administration of the CC feels music is
an inappropriate usage of the theatre, so RRE set up in the lobby by
default. This would have interesting repercussions later on. Although nearly
8:00, the area was virtually empty, except for a stony-faced security guy
and James, a fellow listivarian. After a few minutes of amiable chat (except
with the SF security guy), a representative of the college arrived to inform
us the band would probably start about 8:30, since there was a theatre
performance elsewhere on campus that ended at 8, and the students were
usually on "CC time", meaning they'd wander in eventually.

And eventually they did. I was able to meet the sound guy Mike, and would
like to publicly repeat a compliment I was glad to pay him in person: having
heard a half dozen RRE shows with Mike at the board, I am impressed with the
consistently fine balance and mix Mike achieves, despite the obvious range
of sonic quality in the rooms and the fact that often these are the first
shows he mixed in that room. Over time, the quality of the sound can mature
along with the band's performance skills, allowing more opportunity for
sonic artistry. As RRE grows and changes, I feel their sound is in pretty
good hands.

The room's population did grow until about 120 people were congregated, most
attired in contemporary neo-hippie campuswear but a few, like us, more
conventional in aspect and attribute. A pretty typical jamband audience
demographic.

The crowd had swelled to perhaps 200 when RRE mounted the stage and burst
into a spirited "Fire On the Mountain." Immediately the crowd moved toward
the stage and began dancing with enough enthusiasm to hide the fact few of
them had any rhythm or coordination at all. I said it was a liberal arts
college.

The sound early on was a bit spotty. John Skehan's mando was distant and often
overtoned by Tim Carbone's fiddle. This was especially unfortunate in the next tune,
"Dandelion Wine," in which an otherwise pretty mando break was marred by
unresolved sound issues.

By "Bird in the House", though, tight harmony vocals began to shine through,
leading to a "Head" that featured very appealing banjo work by Andy Goessling. Tim
apparently had a bit of monitor trouble, but that was more than adequately
compensated by Todd Sheaffer's smokin' guitar break followed by a brilliantly clear
mando lead. In the resulting fiddle-call mando-response, John and Tim found
a welcome bit of fire for a cool Colorado night. "Sing With Me" mellowed the
glow enough to let Todd welcome the audience and introduce "Ragtime Annie".

Apparently, the architects had not envisioned thousands of pounds of human
bodies dancing at warp speed when they designed the floor of the lobby. At
times, especially during the "Annie"'s triple time segment, it was hard to
distinguish between Dave Von Dollen's bass and the booming shudder of the floor as it
flexed under the assault of happy feet. In a very short time, RRE had a
couple of hundred people who'd never heard them before twitching, leaping,
and gyrating like a mass attack of St. Vitus Dance in an epilepsy ward.

Well, you've got a trunkful of solid tunes, so where do you go now? "Seven
Story Mountain" was perfectly placed here in the setlist. Andy went to slide
guitar for this one, and the resulting seamless assembly of chords, tones,
and beats needs no further work. Tonight, they nailed it. (Listen, you guys,
stop here. It's perfect.)

I had been waiting for it, and sure enough, "Colorado" didn't follow
"Story". Instead, I sat mystified as a brand new (to me) tune emerged from
an sprightly intro. "Butterfly and the Tree," plucked out of the From Good
Homes catalog, was for the first time in an RRE incarnation. I have to say I
rather liked its goofy enthusiasm. It's a fun little tune, a nice breather
from the sparkier renditions of the set's earlier pieces. I suppose this one
could grow on me, a guilty pleasure much as old ABBA records are to some
folks.

As I mused on that very thought, "Colorado" burst into life as unexpectedly
as aspen leaves the first morning of spring. The crowd, recognizing common
ground between themselves and these strangers from New Jersey, responded
enthusiastically enough that the floor again contributed it share of the
room's vibrations.

It was time to build the momentum. "Colorado" was immediately followed by
"Chains," a directly wrenching version that held such a practiced poignancy
that the following "Stillwater Getaway" was able to effortlessly bring to a
simmer all the focused quanta of thought of every person present. The
rarely-performed "Saddle of the Sun" maintained the heat, so much that all
the doors to the lobby were propped open by citizens of the band concerned
about the thermal welfare of their brothers and sisters, thus allowing the
dry 25 degree outside oxygen into the room, charging us up for the spacey
moodiness of totem animals and altered perceptions of "Black Bear". Dave's
intro was initially a wandering series of notes that searched for a meter in
which to know themselves, leading to nicely-performed rendition that
included a bass quote from the TV show "Northern Exposure"'s theme song.

A new tune by Dave filled the void after the last tones of "Black Bear"
faded into the ionosphere. "Peace On Earth" has an energetic bluegrass feel
and the optimism you've come to expect from RRE. But it is a developing
tune, and time will tell if it can overcome the burden of "timeliness" it
may carry if the mainstream media should discover it.

If you really want to light a cozy fire, listen to Sinatra. But if it's a
blaze you're after to warm your bone marrow, then "Lordy, Lordy" is the tune
for you. Todd and friends crashed into this tune with the reckless abandon
of a movie pirate swinging across the deck of an embattled sailing ship. The
tune gathered momentum under the driving bow work of Tim "Ghost of Grapelli"
Carbone, now officially my third favorite fiddler.

Where else was there to go but another tune from Todd's past, "I Am a Mess",
which now includes a prominent role for each player. John provided the
incendiary mando fuse, but the tune tonight favored the fiddle. At times,
Tim sounds like the result of a cloning experiment in which Stephan
Grappelli's DNA was somehow blended with Papa John Creech. But the jam in
"Mess" kept bothering me, delighted as I was about its shape, form, tempo,
and direction. Clearly something in my past was answering the call RRE's
exploration into trans-space music was uttering.

Of course, it required the most beautiful woman in the world (who oddly
enough agreed to marry me anyway) to break my mental stasis enough to raise
the association to a level I could verbalize. The Horseflies! That Ithaca,
NY band of eccentrics who unleashed such fundamentally angular perspectives
in their lyrics, pacing, and instrumentation. I wondered if any of the RRE
boys had made the 'Flies acquaintance…

This mildly pertinent musing occurred while Todd thanked the audience for a
good time and announced the last tune. "Cold Water" instantly denied the
meaning of its title as a cascade of molten music crashed into a thoroughly
entertained crowd yearning for that one last rush, that deceptively final
elevation into heights we of this night, this now, know so well and so
affectionately.

As the "Whisky Before Breakfast" encore flamed into rapid-fire being, the
now-frosty night air swirled into the room and began to prompt folks to
retrieve clothing layers and try to dress while dancing. It didn't seem to
effect their dancing too much.

I think the few dozens that heard the entire night have acquired that
apostolic glow, the need and desire to share RRE with kindred. This, to me,
is no surprise. Since my first exposure to RRE at Telluride Bluegrass
Festival 2001 I have been an eager observer of their progress toward
whatever it is their evolution will take them. Rarely in a mortal lifetime
are you granted the opportunity to witness the birth and growth of a
creative force that seeks so hard to share its vision of the now with you in
a personal way no other being in your life can touch or effect. Railroad
Earth provides that potential to us all.

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