[15 December 2011]
It’s a Friday night in the rock ‘n’ roll capital of the world and there are no tables out on the dance floor, as venues will sometimes use to help fill space when a show has undersold. But that’s not necessary tonight – Railroad Earth’s increasingly popular formula that blends bluegrass instrumentation with rock sensibility has filled the room with party people.
The Beachland Ballroom has become the go-to venue in Cleveland for bands that have outgrown the popular Grog Shop in Cleveland Heights but who may not have quite the draw or financial flow to play the House of Blues downtown. The Beachland also has one of the best beer selections of any comparably sized club in the nation, making it a great place to hang out for libations.
Several members of Railroad Earth are gray-haired hippies but the crowd features a diverse age range. The New Jersey-based band’s profile has been on the rise throughout the past decade as they’ve become known for delivering a reliable good time based on strong songs and stellar musicianship that touches on rock, blues, Americana, jazz and “newgrass”. Singer/guitarist Todd Scheaffer’s soulful voice is like that of an old friend as he welcomes the audience to settle in for “The Good Life” on the band’s second song. The group then takes off on the first hot jam of the night in “Bread and Water”. This is where the violin of Tim Carbone, mandolin of John Skehan and banjo of multi-instrumentalist Andy Goessling start to gel in crowd-pleasing fashion.
Scheaffer leads the band deeper into the well on “For Love”, singing about doing it all for love over a sweet melodic groove accented by the gorgeous string work of his band mates. The fiddle, mandolin and banjo all meld together in a big crescendo at the end of the tune to win a big cheer.
“If I ever eat acid again, it’ll be at a Railroad Earth show”, an older fan remarks, a compliment of the highest order on the jam circuit. The band may not melt face quite like some of their electric guitar-wielding competition on that jam rock circuit, but Railroad Earth’s heady talent for tight jamming with a psychedelic flavor has won them a passionate fan base - and deservedly so.
This talent is demonstrated time and again throughout the evening, such as on Carbone’s hot solo on an extended jam during “Colorado”. But it’s on tunes like “Hunting Song” where Railroad Earth really stand out amongst the bluegrassy jam crowd. Any group of musicians worth their salt can jam out, but doing so in the context of memorable songs that can touch the soul is what separates the contenders from the pretenders. Bassist Andrew Altman and drummer Carey Harmon lay down a deep bluesy groove, while Goessling delivers a tasty flute intro. Sheaffer delivers some of his deepest vocals here, with all the different instrumental elements then coalescing to create a sum that’s greater than the parts.
A standard half hour set break is followed by a big second set where the band really opens things up for some longer and deeper jams, much to the delight of the crowd. “Goat” finds the group stretching out over a bluesy groove with a hot sax solo, some crisp mando chords and some sharp banjo plucking. The fiddle and mandolin are featured again in “Walk Beside Me”, over a walking groove with Sheaffer singing about putting one foot in front of the other. “I don’t know just where I’m going, but I’m gonna get there anyhow,” sings Sheaffer in a sentiment that many can surely relate to in this era of economic struggle.
A big peak occurs with “Seven Story Mountain”, which starts slow and then builds into a fifteen minute jam vehicle that showcases the band’s talent for meshing their different instruments into a gorgeous sonic tapestry. The delicate jam ascends with waves of violin from Carbone, playing the role of what seems a musical shaman building what becomes a roaring fire. Another highlight occurs when violinist Tim Weed from opening band Rose’s Pawn Shop sits in on “Reuben’s Train”, a bluesy number ripe for a smoking twin-violin dual between Carbone and Weed. It’s here that Carbone almost starts to look a little like the hobbit Smeagol before he got hold of the ring of power. It’s not hard to imagine Carbone throwing down hot jams like this at a tavern in the Shire during a past life in Middle Earth.
The band cools things down a bit with “Mountain Time” before revving back up on “Spring Heeled Jacks”, an instrumental jam vehicle from their latest album that gives the players a chance to really stretch out. Bassist Altman lays down a mean groove and all the instrumentalists go to work riffing out on top. If done wrong, the song could devolve into chaos, but the chemistry onstage keeps the jam popping and peaking for another glorious 15-minute surging jam. Playing in such a loose yet controlled way is a true art form and Railroad Earth really hone their craft on this hot number.
The band ends the night with a stellar encore choice of “Sisters and Brothers”, the Charles Johnson gospel rock classic popularized by the Jerry Garcia Band. It was a perennial crowd pleaser for Jerry, and so it is here as Sheaffer implores listeners to “keep the faith”. The classic anthem has a timeless quality that seems to create a sense of spiritual unity whenever its played, and that’s certainly something the world can use more of right now.