Railroad Earth, Bowery Ballroom, 5/10
Railroad Earth's two-year anniversary show at the Bowery Ballroom began in a most peculiar fashion. Instead of thundering out of the gate with a trademark blaze of energy, the band gently opened with a spacey jam. I certainly wasn't expecting this odd beginning, but the music eventually wound its way into a near fifteen-minute version of "Birds of America." Again, the sound was anything but atypical as fiddler Tim Carbone's bizarre soloing employed a delay pedal to great effect.
To my ears, this was a new version of Railroad Earth, more cerebral than celebratory. The music was very interesting and although it was anything but a dance party, it was certainly holding my attention. I was curious to see how the band would evolve from this odd exposition, but then suddenly, a parade of heavily intoxicated individuals stampeded into the room and plowed their way to the edge of the stage. In celebration of this two-year milestone concert, a special all-you-can-drink pre-party was hosted at another bar, and it seemed as though these patrons definitely got their money's worth. As they raced into the room, jumping and screaming with glee and taking multiple pictures of each other, their ebullient energy seemed to be at odds with Railroad Earth's newfound exploratory nature. Indeed, as the band delved deep into another spacey jam, the new audience members preferred to take time to emphatically greet one another, sharing multiple conversations in complete oblivion to the concert that was happening all around them.
Whether it was intentional or not, the band wisely shifted stylistic gears into a rollicking version of "Dandelion Wine." As the opening notes were recognizable, the drunks in the crowd erupted with excitement. This was the high-energy romp the audience wanted, and whirling dervishes spun, leaped to the high heavens, and tested the elasticity of the wooden Bowery Ballroom floor. Arms and assorted appendages flailed about in various directions. Directly in front of me, a rather tall wild banshee repeatedly thrust her derriere into my chest. Normally, I don't get upset when a supple woman performs a chimpanzee mating ritual upon me, but this woman was unintentionally drilling her ass into my ribs with such force that I feared my night would end with a punctured lung. Quickly, I evacuated the area and found an ass-free zone.
Flying asses aside, the "Like a Buddha" that followed featured one of the stranger moments of the evening. As part of an inside prank on the band, someone was hired to don a bear costume, jump onstage, and dance with the band. The dancing bear was quite nimble and funny and was obviously well trained in a fairly realistic-looking costume. The joke was supposed to be a play on Railroad Earth's signature song, "Black Bear." Unfortunately, the punchline was a bit delayed, as this bear was really a brown bear. I guess all of the black bears in Manhattan were busy that night, so they had to settle for the next best thing. Nevertheless, I'm sure the underemployed brown bear's union appreciated this rare chance at quality work.
After the sassy dancing bear made its exit stage left, the song traveled from its jubilant theme into another section of space. At a certain point, Todd Sheaffer plunked out a strange rhythm on his guitar and the entire band followed suit on a unison jam that took a very long time to develop into something more melodic. Eventually, this long development led into the drunken crowd favorite, "I am a Mess." The song itself was not entirely special, although it flowed into a brilliant mandolin solo by John Skehan, which employed a fantastic build to a searing peak. As the band was enjoying their peak of the evening, a drunken crowd member dry-humped the aforementioned brown bear in excitement.
The music continued, and Sheaffer took a very long solo, leading the band through a series of gear-shifting tempo changes until the pace was racing. As Carbone held a note over, Railroad Earth dove into the klezmer-like sounds of "El Ronquillo." Carbone was on fire now, and his blazing fiddle work slipped effortlessly into "St. Anne's Reel" before resolving into a manic version of the old fiddle tune, "Fire On the Mountain." This was Railroad Earth at their best, shredding tempos and brilliantly fingerpicking and one-upping each other on lightening-quick solos. Naturally, the dance-hungry crowd loved every minute of it.
Unfortunately, this was the climax of the show, and what followed was an hour-long denouement. "Cold Water" kept the crowd dancing, but the energy was starting to dissipate. Songs like "Just So You Know" and "Black Bear" were extremely jammy and stretched out for astronomically long sections of time, often bordering on laborious. By the time Andy Goessling's soulful clarinet steered through a slow and poignant version of "Catfish John," the final song of the evening was a welcome sight.
Overall, I was surprised at how much Railroad Earth's sound has changed in two years. Much of the evening's performance sounded more like the Grateful Dead than Bill Monroe. That's fine with me, as this band really doesn't belong in the traditional bluegrass realm, but I'm still amazed to see how much of a "jamband" they've become in this short period of time. However, all of these newfound thematic developments, segues, jams, and sections of space invoked lots of risk on the band's part. Quite often they fell flat on their face, but they also reached many jubilant peaks. With such immense talent present in Railroad Earth, I'd like to see them continue taking these kinds of risks. Eventually, the obvious failures will pale in comparison to the intense highs, and in my mind, and the risk will truly be worth the reward. After all, that's the essence of live improvisation.