Strange trip continued
Railroad Earth picks up where Grateful Dead and Phish left off
One adoring fan of the New Jersey six-piece bluegrass/rock/jazz/ Celtic band Railroad Earth, commenting on the band’s Web site about its debut Sugar Hill CD Bird in a House, describes the band’s music as “hippie jam band music played on acoustic instruments.”
When I spoke on the phone to mandolinist/vocalist John Skehan at his home in the country town of Randolph, in Morris County, N.J., I asked him, “Do you think of Railroad Earth as a jam band?”
“We’re an amplified string band,” Skehan clarified. “Or a rock band that plays Americana on traditional bluegrass instruments—guitar, fiddle, mandolin, banjo, upright bass. …”
Railroad Earth has been compared favorably to popular jamgrass bands Leftover Salmon, Yonder Mountain String Band and The String Cheese Incident and trailblazing 1970s bluegrass/newgrass band Old & In the Way (featuring the late Jerry Garcia).
I comment that the band has a much more strident sound than any traditional bluegrass band I’ve heard, in large part, it seems to me, due to the big pulse created by the bass and the drums, the latter a decidedly non-bluegrass instrument.
“Yes, we have a drummer also,” Skehan agreed.
“Is he ever playing a bodhran? It sounds like he might be sometimes,” I said, referring to the melodic traditional Celtic drum.
“No, but Carey [Harmon] is a very melodic drummer, so it’s really a nice complement to all the melodic string instruments.” Skehan explained further: “We keep the acoustic instruments sounding as natural as possible, but with a power that matches the volume of the drums.”
Railroad Earth, in its relatively short existence, has already developed a huge and growing Grateful Dead-like following. The “Hobos,” who follow them from gig to gig, are hungry for the inventive, often improvisational sound augmented by Todd Sheaffer’s unique voice, which has been compared to that of Bob Dylan, Roger McGuinn and Arlo Guthrie. His lyric writing invites comparisons to the writing talent of Beat poet Jack Kerouac, whose poem “October in the Railroad Earth” is the inspiration for the band’s name.
“We’re coming into our fourth year as a band,” Skehan told me. “We started around late 2000, after having done a good bit of playing, and made a five-song demo CD. It got such a favorable response that we ended up playing Telluride [Bluegrass Festival in Colorado—their 10th gig ever]. Then we ran back and added another five songs and came up with The Black Bear Sessions. Then we had to add 20 more songs so we could go on tour. I think we sort of locked ourselves in the barn and said, ‘We need to get to work!’ for like a month or two … before we had to go out and do three six- to eight-week tours. …
“It was pretty startling to have such sudden success. So much happened so fast in the beginning that it took us a while to figure out what this [Railroad Earth] thing was. Next thing we knew, we somehow ended up with only four weeks to create Bird in the House for Sugar Hill Records [in 2002]. … It was a whirlwind of a year and a half or two.”
“Railroad Earth is like a ‘70s psychedelic band with a Southern rock attitude that’s been put in the 21st century and given acoustic instruments,” is how John Corcoran, another online fan, put it. “In a world of cookie-cutter music, copycat art and been-there, done-that over-familiarity, this band is more than a breath of fresh air—it’s a hit of 100 percent oxygen.”
Skehan and company, fresh from their exhilarating Mardi Gras gig with Phil Lesh and Friends at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco in February of this year (which Skehan describes as “a very significant moment” in the band’s career), will hit Chico in support of their latest recording, The Good Life.