Railroad Earth, Up North Festival, Hiram, ME- 8/10
Around The World (And Beyond) In An Hour
“They’re like a really tight contra dance band only with drums.”
“I saw them at All Good great jams; really great rocking jams.”
“Oh, man wait til you hear em super wicked bluegrass.”
Next time you’re at a Railroad Earth show, keep track of how many different ways you hear folks describe the band it’s impressive. And better yet it’s most likely all true.
A rundown of the stringed instrumental lineup acoustic guitar, mando, upright bass, violin, banjo, dobro would lead any basic-grasp-of-things gearhead to say, “Sounds like a bluegrass outfit.” But for years now, Railroad Earth has done a decent job of remaining difficult to label (in the nicest of ways) while maintaining a recognizable sound throughout an eclectic catalog of tunes.
After experiencing Railroad Earth’s first visit to Maine at the recent Up North Festival, I humbly submit my own description of their sound: to me, it’s like sitting on the front porch of the whole world, having a tune with some friends. (When I mentioned that to RRE’s violinist Tim Carbone, he replied, “I like that front-porch-of-the-world part would you mind if I stole it?” Go ahead, I say you earned it.)
In the confines of an hour-long set at the Ossipee Valley Fairgrounds in Hiram, ME, Railroad Earth managed to do that thing they do, spinning the crowd in at least one good rotation around the planet with occasional detours into uncharted atmosphere.
Before we go any further, we need to acknowledge the engine room of Railroad Earth, the guys who lay down the rhythms that skip from the tops of the Appalachian Hills to Tibetan mountain peaks and back. Carey Harmon’s drum kit doesn’t feature an array of djembes or tabla drums, but the fairly standard setup that surrounds him doesn’t limit him in the slightest. Harmon can get behind a down-home foot stomper just as easily as he can a Far East drift, all the while wearing a look of utter bliss. Meanwhile, the upright bass of Johnny Grubb holds down the fort, Grubb knowing when a little is just enough and when a lot is perfect.
Guitarist/vocalist Todd Scheaffer started the afternoon’s odyssey, strumming the intro into David Bromberg’s “New Lee Highway Blues.” As the band fell in behind him, Scheaffer began the road tale of “dirty bars,” “cold back seats,” “another sour coffee cup,” and “one more piece of cardboard pie.” A short instrumental break gave multi-instrumentalist Andy Goessling (on guitar for the moment), mandolinist John Skehan, and fiddlehead Tim Carbone a chance to toss it around and limber things up. Back round to Scheaffer’s vocal, and with a final, wistful “ and we’d ride ” the music held on the V chord and the tempo intensified ever so slightly. The train left the station and the band headed into “Fiddlee”.
Andy Goessling doesn’t move much over on his end of the stage (usually only to swap out instruments) but he makes amazing things happen. When Goessling placed his acoustic guitar in the stand and picked up a mandolin, you could see John Skehan grin and with good reason. Skehan slowly approached Goessling from the far end of the stage and the two of them began bouncing mando licks off each other, Skehan the much more animated of the two, laughing and rocking to the tune’s beat, while Goessling stayed firmly planted in his spot, firing off ripping little passages with an occasional shy smile. Tim Carbone got into the fray and the music whipped and whirled around, chasing its tail, finally winding down. Those who had come to hear hoedown had to be happy.
With a pause for a quick breath, all hands with stringed instruments began plucking (including Carbone and his violin) the intro to “Like A Buddha.” The chorus of muted strings sounded almost steel drum-like during the song’s opening minute. And then a good rule of thumb for the afternoon became clear: whenever you saw John Skehan make his way towards Andy Goessling, look out something was about to happen.
Goessling was now on his third instrument of the set a flute and wove his way out of the opening theme as Skehan pursued him with his mandolin. Goessling would let fly a few handfuls of delicate notes and the pony-tailed Skehan would answer him back, grinning and shaking his head.
Schaeffer launched into the vocal, with the crowd joining in for the song’s sing-along “Whoa-ho-ho” choruses. The mood was set; the audience was ready to go wherever Railroad Earth wanted to take them. Swinging out of the song’s bridge, there was a pause and then the band took off into an almost Dark Star-like break led by Skehan’s mando suddenly Scheaffer’s guitar emerged, its acoustic tone supplemented slightly by some spacey effects. Were we going to get lost for a little bit? No back to one more verse and a chorus drop away to Grubb and Harmon driving home the rhythm then off we went with Tim Carbone at the controls. We soared for a minute or two on the violin’s song, then the band let us touch back down gently on the grass. Nothing reckless; we were safe and sound.
“Well thank you folks thank you,” said Scheaffer. “Nice to see you we’re Railroad Earth it’s our first time in Maine. It’s good to finally be here.” The crowd roared.
The band eased into “’Neath The Stars” from The Good Life, keeping the vibe gentle and the arrangement pretty close to the original, and featuring a pretty dobro break by Andy Goessling.
Next came “The Forecast” from Railroad Earth’s latest album, Amen Corner and a chance for us to get a taste of Tim Carbone’s guitar talents. Carbone, who says he’s “been playing guitar (in my own way) for years,” unveiled his picking skills on the new album most noticeably on the tune “Hard Livin’” where he doles out some fine bluesy riffs on the song’s outro. His guitar on “The Forecast” was subtler: little fills and accents throughout. To pull the feat off live, Carbone had to sling his guitar over his shoulder and let it hang while he played the opening violin riff a la the String Cheese Incident’s Michael Kang (only instead of Kang’s modestly-sized mando, Carbone was wearing a Tele-bodied custom electric built by Saint Blues Guitar Workshop) with his pick between his teeth. Throughout the song, he’d make the swap back and forth cleanly and looked to be having fun doing it.
A couple verses in, the band eased into a break, led by Scheaffer on guitar and Skehan following with a little gentle mando a build-up in tension for a moment then gave way to Carbone’s electric. No wild wailings here just gentle, tasteful licks. The mood eased; Carbone switched back to violin; and the song drifted to a close.
All was well everyone was happy. Now twas time for some funk.
Todd Scheaffer started bouncing slightly as he began the riff to “I Am A Mess,” a man’s confession to his mother of some decadent living. The mood caught on and built with Goessling (now on banjo), Skehan, and Carbone all throwing in their lot. Each verse of the reckless tale concluded with Scheaffer’s yell of “But I feel fine!” much to the crowd’s delight. Two verses in, everyone everyone laid into their bass strings for a short Zappa-like break before Schaeffer’s admission of wearing “a dress into a redneck bar in Colorado” while Carbone started firing off eerie violin trills things were starting to get a little weird. With a grin.
A sing-along “doo-doo-it-feels-good” gave way to Andy Goessling’s banjo which gave off its own version of funkiness; Skehan made his way over and went into the huddle emerging grinning and carrying the jam himself. Up the neck of his mando he wove, exploding in a fast tremolo on the upper frets while tossing the lead to Scheaffer.
By this time Harmon and Grubb were laying down some serious thump; the raunch was almost too much for Scheaffer’s clean tone as he ripped away at it.
And then along came Tim Carbone.
Starting down low, Carbone let things subside a little, then began to build a climbing riff that wound around Johnny Grubb’s low-end beat. Up we went; one peak, then a drop back, then another, crazier spiral a pause and then another; this time with Skehan chasing Carbone with the Zappa feel back again. Up up up end of the world? Naw this is Railroad Earth, folks. The chaos quickly gave way to a soft landing.
The Up North folks were doing a great job of keeping acts in line and on time. You could tell the band was aware of the time after touching down from “I’m A Mess” and wasted no time in launching into “Bird In A House.”
The instrumental break during “Bird” was perfect no extended moments, but a beautiful circle described by first Skehan, then Scheaffer, then Tim Carbone’s fiddle. One realized that this band could easily take a song as long as it wanted without losing momentum or play it close to the vest without dampening its emotion.
It was getting close to the end: one more with no encore, for sure. “Thanks for having us here,” said Todd Scheaffer. “We’re going to finish up with a little dance party, all right?”
“It’s a little wet out there,” said Tim Carbone, referring to the rains earlier in the weekend, “so you can’t kick up that much dust but kick up as much dust as you possibly can.”
And off we went to the hoedown again, with all hands throwing the lead around on “Little Rabbit.” (Goessling was back on guitar, nailing a fine flat-picking break, at one point doing a wild back-and-forth swap with Skehan.)
A couple turns around and the lead landed back with Tim Carbone as he turned to face drummer Corey Harmon, his intentions were clear: one, two, three, four passes through the verses each one faster and wilder. Carbone’s bow began to shred its horsehairs as Harmon met the challenge; Grubb’s fingers were a blur as he drove the bass line in pursuit of Carbone’s wild playing.
A pause a breath and down it all came in a happy tumble. As the crowd roared, Timmy Carbone looked at his poor violin as if it might burst into flame.
It had only been an hour, but Railroad Earth looked slightly winded as they grinned and waved goodbye.
But why wouldn’t they? You’d be winded if you’d just gone from Appalachia to Tibet with a detour to Zappaland in an hour’s time, too.