Railroad Earth, Ogden Theatre, Denver, CO – 4/3 & 4/4
On a weekend that felt more like early January than early April, Railroad Earth rolled into Denver and set up shop for a two-night stand at the Ogden Theatre. The music of RRE has been the subject of many a good-natured debate among me and my friends for a while now: Are they a bluegrass band? A rock band? A blues band? A jam band? Whatever, it doesn't matter. The various components that make up this band come together in a beautifully orchestrated symphony of Rock & Roll, improv and soul. The band has been gaining steam and popularity over the last couple of years, and the shows on this frigid weekend in Denver would justify that.
With a hard, cold rain falling outside, I sauntered into the Ogden. The surprisingly large early crowd was treated to a nice opening set by the bluegrass bombasticness of Kansas-bred Split Lip Rayfield.
After a short break, Railroad Earth hit the stage at 10:45. Jumping right into "Hard Livin'", a great song off the band's most recent studio release, Amen Corner, RRE blasted through a first set that I considered to be in the realm of excellent. The energy in the building was through the roof, and the band fed off it. During "Hard Livin’" it seemed as though the guys were introducing themselves to the audience, giving each other a little solo time. Andy Goessling was allowed the most room, wailing away on the incredible-looking double sax one of many instruments in his vast repertoire. Tim Carbone took his turn and proceeded to pierce the air with his electric guitar. Not to be left out, John Skehan did some nice pickin’ on his mandolin. Towards the end of the song Goessling led the band to a crescendo with the double sax, finishing with power. An all-instrumental "Old Dangerfield" displayed some playful notes and a do-si-do vibe. The irish-jig inspired "The Green Roofs of Eireann" got the crowd moving, and found drummer/percussionist Carey Harmon pounding away melodically on the kit as Andy Goessling danced on the flute. With beach balls bouncing around the venue, "Green Roofs" transitioned seamlessly into "Like A Buddha". Lead vocalist Todd Sheaffer belted out lyrics with powerful beauty as the crowd sang along with him. The first set was closed out with another track off Amen Corner, "Bringin' My Baby Back Home", and offered some plentiful pickin' of the Old School nature, with bassist Johnny Grubb pounding on the upright. Great set.
The second set had a much more drawn out, spacey vibe. A very warm and inviting aura was put out by the band. It was as if they were saying: "OK, we kicked your ass that first set, now let's spread out and chill." The set opened with the all-instrumental "1759" and once again showed the bands uncanny ability to take a true bluegrass song and morph it into a an open-ended jam session. Mid-way through the set a great "Magic Foot">"Luxury Liner" sequence was offered. The hard back-beat in "Magic Foot" was complemented with profession by Carbone's violin and Skehan's mandolin. This morphed into the steam engine sounds of "Luxury Liner" and had multiple band members playing off each other, most notably Skehan and Goessling, ultimately leading the way for Carbone to once again show off the always impressive violin skills. The second set was closed out with an insane nineteen minute version of "Seven Story Mountain" — spaced out and played with solidarity, it was a soothing version indeed.
The first night impressed me on many levels. Simply put, these guys make good music.
The second night started with cold temperatures and a strong wind, but no precipitation. I once again found shelter in the Ogden, settling in for another round. From word of mouth and talking with some fellow patrons, the consensus seemed to be that the first night nearly sold out, and the second night had sold out. Whether this was actuality or not, it definitely seemed that the house was more "shoulder-to-shoulder" on the second night than on the previous night. Another popular topic of conversation amongst the people was "how can they top last night?" We were all about to find out.
Split Lip Rayfield opened once again and warmed up the crowd with their infectious energy.
RRE popped on stage around 10:30. With help from the crowd, Sheaffer led the band into the set-opening song of "Head" with a short a capella verse. Carbone and Skehan started where they had left off the night before, battling back and forth during this fourteen minute version. The first set was Amen Corner heavy, with "Been Down This Raod", "Right In Tune", "Crossing The Gap" and "Little Bit O' Me" being played in succession. "Been Down This Road", one of my favorites, showed off Sheaffer's softer voice in a way that came across as soothing and comforting. To close out the first set the guys chose another "Corner" song: "Waggin' The Dog". With Carey Harmon providing the thumping back-beat, the band produced a groovy little version of the song, being playful and tease-like throughout its entirety.
A great version of "Bird In A House" was displayed early in the second set. In a line that just may encompass what the whole idea of Railroad Earth is all about, Sheaffer sang, quite simply, "I want to sing my own song that's all." Grubb's bass was consistent as he laid the foundation for Carbone to move all around on the violin, and he went up and down the scale with what appeared to be child-like ease. Right around the middle of the set RRE unleashed. A sequence that left people talking well after the show, "Reuben's Train">"Warhead Boogie">"New Jam", was unforgettable. "Reuben's Train" had a darker slant to it and Carbone expressed it in his violin playing. The song got spaced out, with the band eventually producing a twister-like sound. I half expected to see Dorothy and Toto come falling from the sky. "Warhead Boogie" followed and with it a chance for Harmon and Grubb to show off their excellent skills as Beat Holders. Andy Goessling also got an opportunity to show off his banjo chops. "Warhead Boogie" then led into a great display: currently dubbed as a "New Jam," the band found something and went with it. It started with Harmon on the drums and Skehan noodling on his mandolin. Skehan built up steam slowly but surely. Carbone let himself be known with subtle complementary violin strokes, and then moved out of the way as Skehan came across something and followed it. Others eventually jumped in to share in the fun and see what they could add. It was a great display of musicianship and improv. To close out the night, a final song (part of a two-song encore) of "Mighty River" was chosen. Funky bass lines opened the song and led into Goessling's banjo banter. Sheaffer capped off the night and weekend with another mesmerizing vocal display as the band shared in the final-song-glory of a well-played weekend.
To sum this weekend up is tough. I think one thing is certain, though: RRE makes music. Music can be defined in so many ways it is hard to know exactly what it is. But I think most can agree that it's very hard to make music, let alone music that resonates with people and life in general. It seems that these guys have figured something out that's cohesive for them, something they can work with and build on.