Railroad Earth

JAM PRESENTS

Railroad Earth

Billy Strings

Sat. Mar 25

Doors: 7:00 pm / Show: 8:00 pm

The Vic Theatre - Jam Productions

$27.50 - $30.00

This event is 18 and over

Railroad Earth
Railroad Earth
There's a great scene in The Last Waltz – the documentary about The Band's final concert – where director Martin Scorsese is discussing music with drummer/singer/mandolin player Levon Helm. Helm says, "If it mixes with rhythm, and if it dances, then you've got a great combination of all those different kinds of music: country, bluegrass, blues music, show music…"

To which Scorsese, the inquisitive interviewer, asks, "What's it called, then?"
"Rock & roll!"

Clearly looking for a more specific answer, but realizing that he isn't going to get one, Marty laughs. "Rock & roll…"

Well, that's the way it is sometimes: musicians play music, and don't necessarily worry about where it gets filed. It's the writers, record labels, managers, etc., who tend to fret about what "kind" of music it is.

And like The Band, the members of Railroad Earth aren't losing sleep about what "kind" of music they play – they just play it. When they started out in 2001, they were a bunch of guys interested in playing acoustic instruments together. As Railroad Earth violin/vocalist Tim Carbone recalls, "All of us had been playing in various projects for years, and many of us had played together in different projects. But this time, we found ourselves all available at the same time."

Songwriter/lead vocalist Todd Sheaffer continues, "When we started, we only loosely had the idea of getting together and playing some music. It started that informally; just getting together and doing some picking and playing. Over a couple of month period, we started working on some original songs, as well as playing some covers that we thought would be fun to play." Shortly thereafter, they took five songs from their budding repertoire into a studio and knocked out a demo in just two days. Their soon-to-be manager sent that demo to a few festivals, and – to the band's surprise – they were booked at the prestigious Telluride Bluegrass Festival before they'd even played their first gig. This prompted them to quickly go in and record five more songs; the ten combined tracks of which made up their debut album, "The Black Bear Sessions."

That was the beginning of Railroad Earth's journey: since those early days, they've gone on to release five more critically acclaimed studio albums and one hugely popular live one called, "Elko." They've also amassed a huge and loyal fanbase who turn up to support them in every corner of the country, and often take advantage of the band's liberal taping and photo policy. But Railroad Earth bristle at the notion of being lumped into any one "scene." Not out of animosity for any other artists: it's just that they don't find the labels very useful. As Carbone points out, "We use unique acoustic instrumentation, but we're definitely not a bluegrass or country band, which sometimes leaves music writers confused as to how to categorize us. We're essentially playing rock on acoustic instruments."

Ultimately, Railroad Earth's music is driven by the remarkable songs of front-man, Todd Sheaffer, and is delivered with seamless arrangements and superb musicianship courtesy of all six band members. As mandolin/bouzouki player John Skehan points out, "Our M.O. has always been that we can improvise all day long, but we only do it in service to the song. 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." Sheaffer continues: "The songs are our focus, our focal point; it all starts right there. Anything else just comments on the songs and gives them color. Some songs are more open than others. They 'want' to be approached that way – where we can explore and trade musical ideas and open them up to different territories. But sometimes it is what the song is about."

So: they can jam with the best of them and they have some bluegrass influences, but they use drums and amplifiers (somewhat taboo in the bluegrass world). What kind of music is it then? Mandolin/vocalist John Skehan offers this semi-descriptive term: "I always describe it as a string band, but an amplified string band with drums." Tim Carbone takes a swing: "We're a Country & Eastern band! " Todd Sheaffer offers "A souped-up string band? I don't know. I'm not good at this." Or, as a great drummer/singer/mandolin player with an appreciation for Americana once said: "Rock & roll!"
Like their fellow musical travelers, from Bob Dylan and Gram Parsons to Wilco and alt- country chameleon, Ryan Adams, Railroad Earth eagerly embraced change in pursuit of an aesthetic breakthrough. "It was time to do something different," admits lead singer, songwriter and guitarist Todd Sheaffer. He and his band mates—violinist Tim Carbone, mandolin player John Skehan, multi-instrumentalist Andy Goessling, and drummer Carey Harmon, plus new bassist Andrew Altman—have spent nearly a decade refining their sound and modus operandi. This time, however, they elected to take some cues from their new A&R man, Michael Caplan (Allman Brothers Band, Los Lonely Boys, Kebʼ Moʼ), and change up their game "to get a fresh perspective." The result is the bandʼs most compelling set to date; encompassing rousing ballads and string-band funk, wistful waltzes and quirky time signature folk.

To realize this vision, Railroad Earth enlisted co-producer Angelo Montrone, whose résumé ranges from work with Matisyahu to Natalie Cole. Sheaffer credits Montrone for helping the band know when to scale back—and when to forge ahead. "We focused on the arrangements a lot more carefully and honed in on our ensemble playing." The producer urged the band to draw out the rock elements of its sound, with additional electric guitars and even some judicious distortion, thanks to an arsenal of vintage amplifiers at Montroneʼs place. ("Theyʼll probably ban us from the bluegrass festivals," chuckles Sheaffer.) The record even features some mean and dirty lap steel playing, courtesy of Goessling, which is a first on any Railroad Earth album.

Michael Caplan also encouraged the band to highlight one of its most secret weapons. "We have some great singers in this band, and weʼve always had a lot of background singing and harmonizing," says Sheaffer. "This time we wanted to push it further and utilize that instrument more fully, so we spent a lot of time on the backing vocals." It worked: Railroad Earth features some of the finest harmony singing committed to record. Just listen to "Black Elk Speaks," as evidence; a masterpiece reminiscent of CSNY circa Déjà Vu, and inspired by the 1932 book of the same title, in which a Sioux medicine man recounts the changes heʼs witnessed in his lifetime. The poignancy of Sheafferʼs lyric and the electrified country-rock sound is enriched further as each new vocal part enters alongside him, harmonies and vibrations illuminating the songʼs spiritual core. Likewise, the humble lyric of "On the Banks" is suffused with a halo of golden light through the rich chorus of voices that surround Sheafferʼs gentle delivery.

That emphasis on the vocals works to underscore Sheafferʼs emergence as one of the most compelling lyricists of his generation. His succinct yet distinctive imagery and feel for the unique cadences of language, with key turns of phrase repeated, as if in prayer, fuse with the music to yield far more than the sum of its parts. "The Jupiter & the 119′′ uses the tale of the first transcontinental railroad—which literally brought together the country, and united disparate camps in a common goal, to reflect upon the hopeful wave of union and transformation that swept over the nation following Barack Obamaʼs election. Putting a more personal spin on the sentiments of "Black Elk Speaks," "Lone Croft Farewell" explores Sheafferʼs feelings about being driven from his New Jersey home to accommodate the construction of a massive electrical plant: "Theyʼre digginʼ at the edges... to build the power line / Same old story... but now the storyʼs mine." Thereʼs even a ghost story, "Potterʼs Field," about a Civil War-era specter of Scottish origin, wandering this mortal coil in search of peace. This classic-sounding, edgy folk song was inspired in part by a visit to the Old Man of Storr, a rocky hill on the Isle of Skye in Scotland. "The kind of place where you can feel the ancient spirits," Sheaffer says.

Only history and the passing of time can truly make a landmark. The first reference to Plymouth Rock came over 120 years after the Pilgrims landed on the Massachusetts shores circa 1620. Nevertheless, those first settlers knew that one phase of their journey had ended and another begun. And so it is with Railroad Earth. It may fall to our children and grandchildren to validate the albumʼs longevity and influence, to file it alongside Patti Smithʼs Horses or Neil Youngʼs Harvest as a record for the ages. But at the moment, anyone with ears should recognize its significance as a turning point in a great American story that is still unfolding.
Billy Strings
"Imagine taking a hardcore heavy metal band like Pantera and cramming all that energy into the body of a 23-year-old bluegrass guitarist. That's Billy Strings. He tears up the stage during his set, grimacing, growling, head-banging and tearing the holy sh*t out of a set of super-charged Americana. Kid can pick! DAMN can he pick! It's acoustic music with a punk edge and a lot of youthful enthusiasm and, oh man, that PICKING! Strings covers a wide variety of classic tunes and songs in his show, from a slow-burning cover of 'Wild Bill Jones' to a raw cover of 'Cocaine Blues' or picking delights like 'Red Haired Boy' and 'Soldier's Joy.' But the standout track is the opening song, 'Dust in a Baggie,' a cleverly written mountain song about meth that manages to take a very current and destructive issue and translate it into the bluegrass vernacular. It's a tour-de-force, written by Strings himself, and is the moment you realize just how far this kid's gonna go." — D.L. "THE BLUEGRASS SITUATION"
Venue Information:
The Vic Theatre - Jam Productions
3145 North Sheffield
Chicago, IL, 60657
http://jamusa.com/the-vic/