Reviews

Railroad Earth: 15 October 2010 - Austin, TX

Greg M. Schwartz

It's tricky to pinpoint exactly what it is that Railroad Earth does, but whatever it is, it's working.

Railroad Earth

Railroad Earth

City: Austin, TX
Venue: La Zona Rosa
Date: 2010-10-15

It's tricky to pinpoint exactly what it is that Railroad Earth does, since they mix mostly acoustic sounds with some electric, bluegrass and blues with rock, and tight songs with improv jamming. But whatever it is they do, it's working. Members of the band were tapped by Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh to play some shows with his band in 2004, and Railroad Earth's star has continued to rise ever since. They played at the smaller Antone's the last time they came through Austin, and La Zona Rosa’s larger space is pretty jammed on a Friday night.

Guitarist/singer Todd Scheaffer and violinist Tim Carbone seem to be the ringleaders, but the sextet's entire lineup contributes to a sonic tapestry where the whole often rises to a greater level then the parts. Some of the members' grey hair gives away the fact that these are seasoned musicians, but there's vitality in the music that appeals to music fans of all ages judging by the crowd.

“Been Down This Road” from 2008's Amen Corner LP is an early highlight with its deep vibe of folky yet bluesy catharsis. The violin of Carbone and the banjo of multi-instrumentalist Andy Goessling blend beautifully with the mandolin from John Skehan. “Right in Tune”, from the same album, is another folky winner about finding that special someone. There's an uplifting vibe in the tune that is contagious, which earns a big cheer at the end.

The band also has a strong new eponymous album that has just been released. It shows the group continuing to hone their craft, while also exploring some fresh new directions. A clear standout track is “Black Elk Speaks”, which the band drops toward the end of the first set. It's one of the heaviest songs Railroad Earth has ever recorded, and the tribute to the legendary Sioux holy man sounds like an instant classic. The band shows great skill with the bluesy riffs and heavy groove, while Sheaffer delivers some of his most soulful vocals. Bassist Andrew Altman and drummer Carey Harmon are at their best here. The band then rides the elevated energy level into “Long Way To Go” to close the set, which receives instant appreciation from the crowd. Skehan's slick mandolin riffs set the course and the rest of the band follows for a great jam that has the crowd hooting, hollering and getting down.

The band comes out swinging after the set break, launching into a clear fan favorite with “Mighty Wind”. The blend of mandolin, banjo, guitar and violin blend into a downright intoxicating flavor, with all the instruments gelling superbly. It's amazing how some crisp banjo playing can elevate a rock groove. The banjo/violin dueling between Goessling and Carbone is stellar. Then there's a great mandolin solo, followed by a smoking violin solo from Carbone. The mighty violinist looks like he's got some hobbit heritage when you view him jamming up close, totally engulfed in the song. It would be no surprise if Carbone's lineage did trace back to the Baggins clan, for Bilbo Baggins was indeed known as a skilled songwriter. It's also not hard to imagine a lot of big mandolin, banjo and fiddle jams going down back in the Shire.

It's only too bad that La Zona Rosa does not employ a fan-friendly security policy like many venues in Austin. There's a tall security guard who may as well be from Mordor at the edge of the crowd, watching like a hawk for anyone who might light up a chocolate cigarette, ready to give them a hard time. But it seems nothing will stop this fun-loving crowd from having a good time. The new “Jupiter and the 119” is another highlight, an upbeat melodic number that keeps things grooving and which features some more tight banjo/mandolin/violin action.

“Dance Around Molly>Dandelion Wine” sees the band throwing down a serious old school hoe-down jam, led by Carbone's ace violin work over an up-tempo beat. Then Goessling comes in with lightning quick banjo runs, and the band is soon off to the races while the crowd dances up a storm. There's an old world flavor that is downright refreshing to hear in 2010. Perennial favorite “Warhead Boogie” provides yet another peak, with its satirical lyrics about the modern war machine and its epic composition that starts off slow and steadily builds into a monster jam.

The band plays right up until One AM and then comes back with a great encore of The Band's “Acadian Driftwood”. It's an appropriate nod, since Railroad Earth's blend of classic musical styles is heavily influenced by the legendary group. It's a stellar rendition with Carbone, Sheaffer and drummer Harmon all singing different verses and then blending together on superb harmonies for the chorus. Goessling adds some flute that fits just right, and it's a perfect cover. Then the band revs it up for one more dance jam with the bluegrass-tinged “Bringing My Baby Back Home”. The crowd-pleasing finish seems to indicate that the band's audience will continue to grow with each return visit to town.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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