[28 October 2008]
“Greatest venue in the known universe,” declares Railroad Earth guitarist/vocalist Todd Sheaffer during the band’s first set. It’s doubtful that anyone would disagree. Because despite whatever engineering technology we might have at our disposal, the Fillmore is a place that can’t be improved by modernization. The venue’s historic vibe and timeless quality are what make it what it is. Sheaffer taps into this, ultimately propelling the band’s vibe higher.
The years keep sliding by, but the Fillmore continues to provide the ultimate setting to take in one of your favorite bands or discover a new one. It’s always an extra treat when the musicians on hand acknowledge this, to let you know that they know how special it is to play at rock’s most sacred temple. From the aura of rock history that oozes out of every corner to the best sound system of its kind and perfect acoustics, the Fillmore has a vibe that is unmatched for live music junkies. From the classy, intimate setting to the user-friendly staff that won’t hassle fans for smoking their “chocolate cigarettes”, as original proprietor Bill Graham used to say. San Franciscans truly have the greatest home court advantage when it comes to rock ‘n’ roll.
Relatively unknown just five years ago, Railroad Earth have come a long way. In 2004, several members were tapped to join Phil Lesh & Friends for a memorable run of shows at San Francisco’s Warfield Theater. Just the year before they were playing on top of an RV in the campgrounds at the High Sierra Festival, but by this summer’s edition had graduated to the main stage. Now they’re playing two nights at the Fillmore.
As with the best Fillmore shows, there’s a surprise treat in the form of an opening act who make such an impression that one hopes they’ll soon be back to headline. Here it’s The Watson Twins, identical twin sisters who grew up in Hunter S. Thompson’s hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, but came of musical age in the same Silverlake district of Los Angeles that bred Rilo Kiley. Chandra and Leigh Watson sang on Rilo Kiley singer Jenny Lewis’ first solo album and recently released their own debut album, the sparkling Fire Songs.
The ladies’ otherworldly voices are backed by a strong band, which delivers a multi-genre sound distilling the deep wells of country, soul, gospel, and rock for a mesmerizing performance. Songs like “How Am I to Be” and “Waves” provide gorgeous sonic tapestries that recall top notch backing bands like Ryan Adams’ Cardinals and Neil Young’s Crazy Horse. “Sirens call out to me / Enchanting creatures sing soft melodies / Am I floating away?” sing the Twins on “Waves”, truly taking the listener into that floating away space. The songs aren’t exactly up-tempo, but there’s just enough of a groove to captivate when mixed with those angelic voices.
A cover of The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven” twists the song into an ethereal slice of Americana. Behind Leigh Watson’s compelling vocal, the performance rises on “Bar Woman Blues” as the band builds the danceable groove on a slow but sure train to another slice of alt-country-rock heaven. Some antsy crowd members find the opener to be a bit too mellow, but for those who care to bend their ear to hear the tune, The Watson Twins provide an enchanting sound.
Railroad Earth have a stellar new album of their own with this year’s Amen Corner, which finds the band perfecting their rootsy and jamming sound that blends rock, bluegrass, jazz, and Americana influences into a diverse and tasty musical stew. Some have come to call it “epicgrass”. The new album apparently featured more heavily in the previous night’s show, but tonight finds them mostly delving into older material. They open with “Storms” and keep bringing the energy all night.
New Monsoon guitarist Jeff Miller joins the band on “The Hunting Song”, continuing a mutual appreciation society that’s gone on all year. Railroad Earth violinist Tim Carbone sat in for almost all of New Monsoon’s February Fillmore show, while Miller also joined Railroad Earth during their main stage set at High Sierra. Here they engage in some more dynamic interplay that drives one of the night’s hottest jams.
The new “Crossing the Gap” closes out the first set with the entire band gelling. Mandolinist John Skehan, multi-instrumentalist Andy Goessling, upright bassist Johnny Grubb, and drummer Carey Harmon all synch in with Sheaffer and Carbone for a runaway freight train jam.
The second set brings more of the same, the band delivering a high-energy set that keeps the crowd shaking its bones throughout. These are all top shelf players and it’s easy to see why Railroad Earth are riding a high and powerful wave. There’s a strong influence from the Grateful Dead’s Workingman’s Dead / American Beauty era, a rich vein to mine. But the influence digs even deeper, with the band also conjuring gypsy caravan and Old West saloon vibes from even earlier eras, yet blending it with modern American songwriting.
Things really start to flow in “Like a Buddha”, with the band moving into an extended jam of interweaving riffage over the song’s uplifting melodic groove. Carbone steps up here to take a commanding lead, with his violin work soaring over the rhythms set down by Skehan, Sheaffer, and Goessling. The band channels the energy right into another big workout on “Warhead Boogie”, featuring still more epic jamming by Carbone. “Standing on the Corner” shines as well, with a hot jam that sees the crowd singing and Skehan tearing up his mandolin. There’s a chemistry that’s evident in the jams demonstrating a band that has really got its act together.
New Monsoon’s Miller rejoins the band for the encore, a smoking take on the Doors’ classic “Roadhouse Blues”. The song sounds larger than life with Sheaffer’s voice receiving some enhanced reverb on the Fillmore’s crystal clear sound system, as the band lights one more fire before sending the ecstatic crowd out onto the corner of Geary and Fillmore.