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Published: 2005/02/09
by Jason Short

Railroad Earth / Vince Herman, TLA, Philadelphia- 1/28

In recent months Railroad Earth has been chugging across the countryside, powering to the forefront of the jamband community. Recent appearances have included a two night headlining New Years run at Mexicali Blues, opening and playing with String Cheese Incident over Thanksgiving, and violinist Tim Carbone and mandolin player John Skehan becoming two of the latest additions to Phil Lesh's "Friends".

Bands from New Jersey often turn Philadelphia into a second home, and Railroad Earth doesn't appear to be the exception to the rule. At quarter past nine, the opening act, former Leftover Salmon front man Vince Herman walked through the crowd with little notice.

"What do you say?" Herman questioned as he stepped up with his acoutsic guitar. A few people yelled out, "Festival" but most in the crowd didn't seem to know the singer or his music, a far cry from Vince's last appearance in this same venue with Leftover. He spent much of his set trying to connect with of his crowd, ad-libbing lyrics along the way, filling his songs with lines about Cheesesteaks and spending half an hour to find a parking spot. The struggle to connect with the audience was most apparent during "Hey Woody Guthrie" as someone in the front row actually had the nerve to answer his cell phone and have a lengthy conversation. The crowd started to come around during a sing-along sea shanty and he finally won them over with a length cover of the Band's "The Shape I'm In" that featured ad-libbed lyrics like, "Every time I'm stoned I feel like Keith Richards." Unfortunately, it also proved to be Vince's last song of the night, and he wandered off stage as anticipation built for Railroad Earth.

After a short break between acts, the band came out to be greeted by a wave of applause. Mandolin player John Skehan was on stage left, followed by Andy Goessling on banjo, Carey Harmon on drums, Todd Sheaffer in front of the drum set on acoustic guitar, Johnny Grubb on upright bass and Tim Carbone holding down the right side of the stage on violin. Many in the crowd were self proclaimed "Hobos" who hopped on board to dance the night away. The songs were well known and numbers like "Bird in a House" had the majority of the audience singing along. The amazing thing about the whole scene was how young the crowd was and how old and timeless the music felt. Here was old time music with a driving percussion behind it, accompanied by rock star poses and moves from Todd Sheaffer and Andy Goessling. John Skehan was playing his mandolin like a guitar, and the band was suddenly taking off into space. Here were a group of musicians who were almost impossible to pigeon hole: Southern Rock into bluegrass into a space jam so far out there and so mysterious that they could have launched into either "Dark Star" or "Mexicali Blues" next. For good measure Johnny Grubb dropped in a few bombs from his upright bass.

By the end of the hour-long first set, the whole crowd was clapping along. There was a thirty minute break filled with ridiculous E-A-G-L-E-S chants from the crowd, and people hydrating themselves with water. Off to stage left a hand painted sign was held up and read: Tarot Reading.

The crowd was really fired up when the band came back on and Railroad Earth reciprocated. Johnny Grubb kept tapping his foot and bobbing his head as he plucked his bass. Together with Carey Harmon, who drummed with his eyes closed, the two of them formed a solid foundation from which the rest of the band built upon. Tim Carbone danced his violin on top of the beat, and was joined by some fierce banjo and mandolin work. Todd Sheaffer added some Mexican sounding guitar riffs while the rhythm section kept adding more coal to the engine, driving the Railroad Earth sound forward. In the middle of the second set, Vince Herman returned to stage and aided the band with more ad-libbing and manic dancing during "El Cumbanchero" and "On My Way To The Old Home." A huge back and forth jam erupted, with Andy Goessling trading in his banjo for a mandolin and taking part in a call and response battle with John Skehan and Tim Carbone. After Vince Herman left the stage, the band let loose with a Big Band Swing Bluegrass sound that was completely mind-boggling. By the time the second set ended with "Dandelion Wine," "The Hunting Song," and "Head," even the cameramen there to record a DVD were singing along.

"Whoa Oh Oh Oh Oh" from the crowd in "Not Fade Away" style at the end of the second set. The band came back with some Hoedown music for the crowd in the form of "Little Rabbit." Vince Herman danced back out on stage, and kept asking the crowd, "Where's the baby? I'm going home." It was a surreal sight, and Todd Sheaffer wasn't sure to make of it, but smiled and shrugged and kept playing. Finally Vince Herman danced off stage once more, and the band was able to close out the song and the show, the spotlight firmly fixed on them alone.

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