Railroad Earth at the Georgia Theatre, Athens, GA, September 20, 2012. Photo by Jeff Pearson.
Anytime Railroad Earth plays in Georgia, you can safely rely on having a great time. Anytime Railroad Earth plays anywhere, you can expect to have a great time, but the familial atmosphere that surrounds their shows as it is becomes amplified in the deep south; a show is a way to reconnect and reconvene with the people closest to you—to share an experience together and sweat it out under the swirling lights together in a fit of dancing glee. Not only that, but it seems as the years go by, as bands who once held prominence in the field of constantly touring roots-revivalists are seeing their turnouts diminish, perhaps times changing within their fanbase, or stagnation getting the best of them, Railroad Earth’s parties seem to keep getting bigger and better. Thursday night, the unofficial first night of the weekend for Athens, Georgia, Railroad Earth threw their biggest party to date for the small college town.
Spirits were palpably high for the entirety of the evening; it felt like a homecoming of sorts for the Stillwater, New Jersey sextet as the family gathering atmosphere of the show was in full swing. It was the largest crowd I have personally seen at a Railroad Earth show in Georgia, and the packed Georgia Theatre was giving everything they could back to the band from the very start of the show opener, “The Forecast.” It was a constant, cyclical wave of energy communicated back and forth between the band and the crowd. “The Forecast” immediately showed off not only the band’s keen sense of melody—the mostly instrumental song has completely memorable melodic interplay between the violinist Tim Carbone, and the rich mandolin playing of John Skehan—but also the command that the band has over their craft. Several times throughout the course of the night, they would let the loosen the reins on their jamming, allowing the music to practically tumble into chaos before delivering a memorable refrain that reminded everyone that it actually never was on the verge of tumbling into chaos—they were in complete control of the direction their music was going all night. The instance when the gorgeous instrumental hook of “The Forecast” delivered the crowd to the band’s destination after fearless wandering was the first of many such reminders.
The first set was a high-energy, back porch jam session punctuated by many of the band’s ventures through the annals of the bluegrass music that they base so much of their sound off of. The booming “Mighty River” had the near-capacity crowd singing along to its huge chorus, but Railroad Earth really had the crowd moving with the complexly layered, fast-paced instrumentals like “Shockenawe Mountain Breakdown” and “1759.” It speaks to the multi-faceted nature of Railroad Earth that they can move the crowd to fits of joyful knee-slapping, foot-stomping dancing whenever they break out into an instrumental passage, and can warm their hearts with simple, uplifting lyrics and melodies on songs like “Old Man And The Land;” as singer Todd Sheaffer belted out the chorus of, “I’d like the days here / I’d like the nights here / Here I will settle me down,” you’d be hard-pressed to find a frown amongst the packed Georgia Theatre. Perhaps the band’s greatest asset are their melodic sensibilities—not only are their touching lyrics delivered with memorable melodies, but at any given moment, one of the band’s instrumentalists is effortlessly weaving into the tapestry of sound a gorgeous, silky strand of song. As they closed the first set with “Goat,” a deeper track from 2004’s The Good Life, they showed both sides of that coin, with Sheaffer’s homely vocal leading the band into a spirited, bluesy jam in which each band member took turns treating the crowd to solos, with each one the crowd growing more and more engrossed in the music.
Railroad Earth wasted absolutely no time building on that momentum to start the second set. They came out firing with perhaps one of their biggest crowd-pleasers in their catalog filled with crowd-pleasers, “Elko.” Drummer Casey Harmon and bassist Andrew Altman led the band with a bounce like tires on a gravel road, each subtle violin line soaring by like a cloud on the countryside. It was the perfect way to start the second set—any lull in energy that might have occurred with a setbreak was immediately filled with the all-out attack of bluegrass-infused rock music. While each Railroad Earth show can lean any certain way, whether it be straight bluegrass, the more rock and roll stylings of “Elko,” or even exploratory jazz, Thursday’s Georgia Theatre show was not pinned to one specific style. The band weaved their way effortlessly from song to song, covering the wide range of genres that they command so easily, making for a varied, yet cohesive show that had the hundreds of “Hobos,” as Railroad Earth fans affectionately call themselves, on their toes.
The band highlighted this sense of stylistic variety with “Birds Of America,” a sprawling, freely flowing song that showed the myriad of sounds the band has the ability to harness—from the country stomp of the verses to kaleidoscopic free jazz in an extended jam during the middle. Not only can the band expertly perform in different veins of music, but each member possesses talent on multiple instruments. Though Sheaffer is the group’s primary singer, it’s hard not to focus on the band as a whole; Andy Goessling switched from banjo to guitar to saxophone throughout the evening, displaying how his diverse musical background gives Railroad Earth depth and a vast array of sounds to work with, and Carbone even took the lead vocal on “Crossing The Gap,” perhaps surprising a lot of people not familiar with the band with the amount of talent they truly possess.
As Railroad Earth worked their way through the final suite of songs, they hardly stopped to even breathe. Each song built upon the momentum of the last; the constantly evolving “Birds Of America” blended into the propulsive bluegrass swing of “Stillwater Getaway” and the flat-out rock and roll of “Warhead Boogie,” each song growing more intense and the crowd more swept up. By the time the band closed the second set with “Hard Livin’,” it was a complete sing-a-long, friends arm in arm singing the words back to them. It was indicative of the type of southern hospitality that Georgia fans consistently show their favorite bands—I believe every time Railroad Earth comes down south it feels like coming home to them. Though everyone in the Georgia Theatre knew there would be one more song—an encore is something that concert-goers have practically come to expect—everyone was practically begging for more. The band played a gorgeous and moving version of “Bird In A House,” having all of their friends in their home away from home singing the chorus as they wandered out into the streets.