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Published: 2009/03/06
by Brian Robbins

Old School Freight Train, Unity Center For The Performing Arts, Unity, ME – 2/19

When Old School Freight Train’s Jesse Harper greeted the crowd at the Unity Center For The Performing Arts in Unity, ME with a casual remark about the challenges the band had getting to the venue, he was undoubtedly referring to the weather and that’s how it was received. The heavy, wet snow that had hit the state the night before certainly hadn’t made things easy travel-wise for the Charlottesville, VA-based band. But that was nothing compared to the bigger challenge that they faced as they took the stage at the intimate hall: absorbing the loss of long-time mandolinist Pete Frostic, who had left the band the previous week.

Frostic’s departure, though understood and accepted by all (he’d opted for being at home with his young family over the traveling life of a musician), left his four band mates with some decisions to make on the eve of a tour to promote their new album Six Years. Guitarist/lead vocalist Harper, fiddle wizard Nate Leath, bassist Darrell Muller, and drummer Nick Falk were unanimous in their feelings: tighten up the circle, rearrange songs as needed to absorb the changes then get out on the road and play. The now-quartet had a half-dozen practices to figure themselves out before their trial-by-fire at Unity.

The evening’s set list was built almost entirely of songs from the as-of-then-unreleased new album a bold move in itself. “Let Me Go” led things off with a short minor-chorded jam topped with a slithery fiddle. Harper dug into the vocal like an R&B soul man while his band mates cruised on the song’s cool vibe. The last notes of the opener had barely faded when WHAM! Muller and Falk led the charge into “Millionaires” with a driving riff that sounded like Van Morrison’s “Wild Nights” combined with a leg-pumping ska beat. Harper belted out a couple of verses, then went into a huddle with Nate Leath. Light guitar flutters and gentle fiddle lines drifted around each other in the early moments of the jam; then Muller and Falk began turning up the intensity, eventually driving Leath’s fiddle to wild heights.

The band now definitely had the attention of the crowd (the majority of whom looked to be from the local college campus), unknown material or not. They next gave a demonstration in the ancient art of weaving with a Far East-flavored jam that hinted at Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” taking the hall totally by surprise a couple of minutes later when they drifted into a vocal: “I Know You Rider gonna miss me when I’m gone ” The crowd exploded into cheers and the band reciprocated by slamming into a double-time stomp that still retained some of the intro’s exotic flavor. Muller led the way vocally through the first few verses; Harper blistered out a fiery lead on the first break, then threw it to Leath, who ripped it up with his bow. Muller broke the crowd’s heart with the “Jerry verse” (“I wish I was a headlight ”), then the music fell away. Nick Falk commenced to work his drum kit over as his band mates took a deep breath. After a few moments, Harper and Muller began to lay down a foundation for Nate Leath to build upon. Leath dug into the pedal board at his feet, unleashing an array of sounds that teased Jimi Hendrix on a fiddle. Though Leath admitted afterward that the effects board was a brand-new addition to his live setup (he purchased it in Boston as the band worked their way north), he commanded it tastefully. The audience was totally at the band’s mercy as the old Dead chestnut came to a crashing finish.

The rest of the set list was all from the new album: following “Rider” was an intro that swirled its way into a “Dear Prudence”-like riff, finally arriving at the stop/start rhythms of “Wake Up.” The Band kept it gentle for the first couple of verses, then dug in harder as Harper pleaded his case. “Like You” showcased Muller’s swooping bass during the jam as Harper’s guitar and Leath’s fiddle chased each other round and round in a wistful dance. Falk’s jazz influence was all over the new album’s title cut, “Six Years” snapping out fierce rolls and driving the song’s quirky beat flawlessly in a neat display of controlled power.

Things took a turn for the mellow next with “Memphis”: Jesse Harper’s good-ol’-Sunday-mornin’-style vocal set the mood, then made room for a sweet fiddle break. After another verse and chorus, Harper took his own solo on the guitar, laying down some licks that sounded like vintage Dickey Betts. And to take the analogy even further, Leath picked up on a repeating figure that Harper was playing, the two of them pulling off a twin lead that smacked of classic Allman Brothers.

Many in the crowd weren’t even born when “Heart Of Glass” was first popular in 1979. Deborah Harry and Blondie were all over the radio with “Heart,” which was one of those songs whose perky melody bored deep into your brain upon hearing it like it or not. Old School Freight Train used “Heart Of Glass” to open their new album and to close their set at Unity. Any reviewers writing about OSFT’s version will be digging into their thesauruses to find an alternative for the word “haunting” but it can’t be helped: there’s no better description for the band’s new slowed-down arrangement. They weren’t about to let the Unity crowd go quietly, however: after a true-to-the-album take of the song, Falk started to pick up the beat. When Leath began playing the oh-so-familiar melody line of the original version, some in the crowd cheered in recognition; the rest didn’t care. The dance floor (and stage) had exploded into full-blown pogo and Old School Freight Train owned the hall.

Later in the evening, Jesse Harper quietly accepted praise for Old School’s performance. “We’re happy with the way things went tonight it was the first step in a new direction for the band. But we’re all kind of perfectionists; there’ll be a lot of critiquing going on in the van tomorrow,” he said with a shy grin.

Maybe so. But to the crowd at the Unity Center, the trial-by-fire debut of the new Old School Freight Train couldn’t have gone any better.

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