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Reviews > Shows

Published: 2002/08/12
by Brian Ferdman

Railroad Earth, Village Underground, NYC- 8/2

The Village Underground is a relatively small venue. Patrons usually wind up crammed down front in a joyful, sweaty haze, dancing and grooving hard to their favorite band. However, that wasn’t happening when Railroad Earth took the stage.

Railroad Earth typically plays music that is lively and makes you want to dance. Theirs is not music for a weary butt, so you can imagine my surprise as I watched scores of people sitting on their respective derris, politely nodding their heads to the music. To make matters worse, the few people who decided to dance chose to remain sequestered on either side of the stage, leaving a giant void of nothing but hardwood floor down front and center. At first glance, this scenario was so bizarre that I guessed I must have missed a pre-show announcement or memo requesting that dancers refrain from blocking the view of seated patrons. Perhaps there was a sudden outbreak of politeness and restrained behavior in New York City?

Or maybe it was the band’s fault.

In all honesty, the music was coming across as rather dull and could be labeled “nothing special” at best. Railroad Earth soldiered through bland renditions of their songs with the energy of a nursing home. When the band chose a sluggish tempo for the normally moving “Chains,” it was clear that something was wrong.

Lead singer Todd Sheaffer then exclaimed, “It looks like a party crowd,” as the band inexplicably began playing a spacey, meandering jam. It took every fiber of my waning sense of morality to refrain from responding, “But why are you trying to bore us to death?”

However, then suddenly, the band launched into “Head,” a rollicking tune that is a crowd favorite. Carey Harmon’s thunderous drumming and Dave Von Dollen’s nimble basslines immediately acted as a defibrillator for the previously flat-lining pulse of the band. After Andy Goessling’s first big banjo break, the crowd responded by flooding the middle of the dance floor and ignoring the sitting patrons, many of whom were now motivated to stand and dance. The band then began to build off one another in a series of cascading solos that peaked with an atypical duel between fiddler Tim Carbone and mandolin player John Skehan. When the group dove back into the chorus, most of the crowd spontaneously joined them in singing, “Whoah-oah-oah-oah-oah!” Now the room was alive.

After a solid “Lordy Lordy,” “Mighty River” dropped the tempo a bit, but Harmon’s complex drum beats kept the newfound intensity alive. A fantastic solo by Carbone had the audience on its toes, but unfortunately, the song ended far too soon. The medley of traditional bluegrass tunes that followed, including “Cherokee Shuffle” and “Whiskey Before Breakfast,” showcased the groups fingerpicking skills, much to the listeners’ delight.

Then the band went into something that defies description. To call this jam “Space” seems unfair because this was not just aimless wandering through weird sounds. The jam had purpose, and it created a wonderfully slow build that transitioned perfectly into the raga-like “Seven Story Mountain.” The audience remained fully engrossed as the song began to breakdown into a jazzy jam that subconsciously incorporated elements of, dare I say it, “Dark Star.” Harmon developed a playful and intricate drumbeat that held everyone’s attention rapt, as the playing slid into a darker realm before returning with a majestic flourish and then gently dissolving and sliding away into thin air, leaving many jaws fully agape.

After witnessing this impressive feat, it was clear to me that Carey Harmon was playing at a new level this evening, and he was the driving force behind the show’s intensity. In a band filled with an array of flatpicking virtuosos, the last guy you expect to notice is the drummer. That had always been the case for me until this night. Harmon demonstrated an impressive ability to switch his styles from regimented to playful, and he was frequently turning the corner with incredible precision and flair, propelling the pickers of Railroad Earth to loftier heights and transforming the dancers in the crowd into a sea of whirling dervishes. If one had to award an MVP trophy for the evening, Harmon clearly had it wrapped up by the bridge of the aforementioned “Head.”

Dave Von Dollen’s “Peace on Earth,” is an upbeat and optimistic scorcher that is typically a crowd favorite. However, after the band blazed through this number with passionate dexterity, the audience response was deafening. You could label this reaction as “happy,” “excited,” or “the sound of stampeding elephants,” but you’d still be way off the mark. Simply put, it was an ovation like none other. The tremendous roar and booming applause from calloused hands took Railroad Earth by surprise. This type of audience reaction is usually reserved for the time before the encore, but Railroad Earth still had more music to play in the set. How do you follow up a song that produced a spontaneous ovation? You play as fast as you possibly can.

Railroad Earth usually takes “Ragtime Annie Lee” and gradually speeds it up until it finishes at an extraordinarily fast tempo. However, on this night they decided to simply start the song at an extraordinarily fast tempo. Where on Earth could they go from there? Well, they gradually kicked the song up to an even faster tempo, then to an unbelievably fast tempo, then to a fingers-must-be-bleeding tempo, and finally, to a too-fast-for-human-consumption-lookout-this-train-is-out-of-control-get-me-some-Ritalin tempo. It was monstrous, scary, and exhausting, as well as a mind-blowing way to end a set.

After tearing the roof off the venue, the band wisely decided to encore with the gentle “Railroad Earth” and Bill Monroe’s roving “Fire on The Mountain.” It was a nice way to end a fantastic show, and as a rapid young girl repeatedly jumped up and down with no sense of rhythm screaming, “I love you, Todd,” we all were able to leave with a laugh.

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