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Railroad Earth + Bruce Hornsby & the Noisemakers

(10 Jul 2013: Humphreys Concerts by the Bay — San Diego)

The Noise of the Earth Tour rocks Humphreys Concerts by the Bay

It’s a typically balmy summer evening at Humphreys Concerts by the Bay, a waterfront venue in what anchorman Ron Burgundy calls “the whale’s vagina.” If you own a boat, you can float right up to the venue. Most fans are landlocked, yet ready for action with one of 2013’s best double bills. With veteran keyboard maestro Bruce Hornsby teamed with the rising jamrockers of Railroad Earth, a long evening of musical mayhem is in store on “The Noise of the Earth Tour”.

The two bands have been alternating headlining slots on the tour and it’s Hornsby and his Noisemakers that open the show tonight. The 1,400 seat venue is not exactly packed, suggesting that the ticket prices may be a bit on the high side for the recessional times of this foul economic era. But playing outdoors by the local marina still makes for a great summer concert vibe, especially with the stronger than average rum drinks being served up at the bar.

Hornsby has an ace collection of musicians and they play with a sense of musical freedom that puts a charge into the air. The virtuoso piano player made a name as something of a pop star in the ‘80s, but the hits only obscured how Hornsby is a musician’s musician with the chops and diverse tastes to do it all—jazz, country, rock, improv and more. Hornsby has played with Branford Marsalis, Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, and even toured with the Grateful Dead. It seems appropriate then when several members of Railroad Earth sit in for a jam, much to the delight of the audience. Violinist Tim Carbone and mandolinist John Skehan fit right in and it’s easy to see why putting these bands on a co-headlining bill is a great match.

Most of Hornsby’s crowd seems a bit on the older side, content to stay in their seats, although there’s a core contingent dancing up front that makes it feel like a legit rock concert. “White Wheeled Limousine” is a highlight, with Hornsby leading the band through a jazzy jam with prog-rock flavor. There’s some great sax work that sounds beautiful on such a summer’s eve and stellar musicianship all around.

The vibe builds as nightfall comes and the venue continues to fill in for Railroad Earth. The band has risen in the past decade as jammers with acoustic/bluegrass instrumentation that rock, along with the sharp songwriting skills of singer/guitarist Todd Sheaffer.

“Our M.O. has always been that we can improvise all day long, but we only do it in service to the song, “ says Skehan at the band’s site. “There are a lot of songs that, when we play them live, we adhere to the arrangement from the record. And other songs, in the nature and the spirit of the song, everyone knows we can kind of take flight on them.”

The band normally plays two sets, although the co-headlining format means they’ll have to jam it all into one 90-minute set here. “Mighty River”, one of the band’s staple jam vehicles, is an early highlight. The chemistry between Sheaffer’s guitar, Skehan’s mandolin, Carbone’s violin and Andy Gossling’s banjo flows with a sonic alchemy that lights up the evening. Drummer Carey Harmon and bassist Andrew Altman provide a smooth and solid rhythm section for the string players, making for one of modern music’s most dynamic sextets.

Hornsby joins the band for some piano plunking on an extended take on “Black Bear”, with some soulful emoting by Sheaffer. The group faces some technical difficulties with sound dropouts during the tune, but are able to persevere and triumph. They’ve got a big gig at the Red Rocks Ampitheater in Colorado just two days later that has some fans speculating the band has one eye looking forward. But Humphreys must be won over first. The tune seems a bit on the overly mellow side at first, but catches fire in the jam toward the end that gets the set going. “Storms” features an uplifting vibe about triumphing over adversity, with the violin, banjo and mandolin once again gelling for some great interplay.

“Hunting Song” provides a peak highlight with one of the band’s bluesier tunes that features a harder rocking flavor and some great space for jamming. It’s one of Sheaffer’s most compelling tunes and the band rocks it out for all it’s worth on a ten-minute exploration. It’s one of those songs that finds the band at the height of its powers as the crowd revels in sonic bliss.

The show closes with the majestic “Like a Buddha”, another classic jam vehicle from the other side of the sonic spectrum. The song conjures visions of Gautama Buddha as a musical Jedi, sparking transcendent jams to alleviate suffering on this Earth. “There is magic in the air and it can take you higher,” sings Sheaffer. It’s no idle boast as the band jams out for 13-minutes of musical magic that leaves the audience floating away on cloud nine as they head off into the evening.


Greg M. Schwartz has covered music and pop culture for PopMatters since 2006. He focuses on events coverage with a preference for guitar-driven rock 'n' roll, but has eclectic tastes for the golden age of sound that is the 21st century music scene. He has a soft spot for music with a socially conscious flavor and is also an award-winning investigative reporter. Follow him on Twitter at @gms111, where he's always looking for tips on new bands or under the radar news items.

Bruce Hornsby and the Noisemakers, White Wheeled Limousine - 7/10/13
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