Railroad Earth, Harper’s Ferry, Allston, MA- 3/20
"Hey man, sorry about reaching over you to get my drink." I heard this from behind me as I was sitting at the bar and kicking back a quick beer while waiting for Railroad Earth to start playing. "That's quite alright," I said back to the considerate and thirsty fellow. From a cursory gander at the crowd amassed inside Harper's Ferry, it was apparent there was a mix of die-hard bluegrass habituand curious walk-ins. This did not affect the usual jovial atmosphere at these types of shows; people were just plain happy to be out of the cold rain that was increasingly starting to drip outside. We were quickly treated to some sunny music when the band sauntered in, packed like sardines on the diminutive stage.
No introduction was needed, the music started right in with a standard happy-go-lucky bluegrass tune. The notes played from the acoustic instruments (mandolin, banjo, guitar, violin, upright bass and drums) bounced off the walls of the cozy venue to naturally beef up the overall sound. After a very tight violin solo, another basic lyric driven song was played. These first two songs got the crowd right into it; they were already swimming to the music and yowling to the stage in delectation. After a quick "Hi everyone!" from Todd Sheaffer (lead vocals, guitar), a fluttering riff over a slow drumbeat led the way to a more experimental and slow composition. A long reverb-heavy acoustic guitar solo broke off into a jazzy upright bass solo.
The popular "Bird in a House" slowed the pace and dragged on a bit too long before the band delved into another exploratory endeavor. Johnny Grubb (bass) held the main musical theme while Carey Harmon (drums) played an odd beat under it. This melted into "Seven Story Mountain," a spacey piece where the band members reached into their souls and guided the crowd to a chorus of "Sometimes its hard to let it go…Sometimes I wonder who I am." A fast paced and very short old-style-ho-down closed out the first set.
While the first set at times meandered into low energy jams, the second set more than made up for it. Johnny Grub busted out an electric bass for a more penetrating low-end sound during the reggae influenced set opener. John Skehan, Andy Goessling and Tim Carbone (mandolin, banjo, violin; respectively) harmonized with each other and took turns soloing over the firm drum and bass combination. John brought in "Smilin' Like a Buddah" by playing an eclectic mandolin intro that eventually collected with the other instruments and morphed into a combination of bluegrass and an Irish jig. The crowd kept swaying as a straight up lyric centered piece brought the show back to earth. This did not last long because Andy's inhumanly fast guitar solo in the middle evoked yelps of appreciation and pleasure from the crowd. A slower song wound us down and showed off the singing ability of the entire band save Johnny.
This marked the end of the experimentation for the evening. The rest of the set was devoted to a four-song stretch that eliminated the possibility of letting the crowd down with a "latter hour slump." Instead, Tim and John banged out the best solos of the entire night in the last half hour of the show. One maniacal moment gave way to the next as I lost myself in the raw and powerful music, letting it whisk my soul away to another place. "Mighty River" and "Head," probably two of the catchiest songs in their repertoire, were included in a three-song encore. The slow and sultry "Catfish John" capped off the night and sent us home tired but with a smile on our faces.
The most astonishing thing about Railroad Earth is the musical intuition the band members seem to share with each other. During the composed as well as the solo parts, there was seemingly not one note misplayed, nor was there anything that didn't work. This acumen when playing on stage allows them to merge all sorts of musical styles with bluegrass and to make it captivating in the process. Combine this with the absolutely filthy solos and uplifting lyrics and you shall find that Railroad Earth is a band any music lover should check out.