Railroad Earth rolled into Raleigh for a Friday night frenzy of bluegrass breakdowns and psychedelic shakedowns. Formed in New Jersey in 2001, they gathered steam quickly, booking the Telluride Bluegrass Festival just a week after releasing their demo. Despite being just the 10th show together, they turned in a rousing performance that would launch their career. Now almost 20 years later, the train is still rolling and the coals still burn hot. Their 8th album, the Anders Osborne-produced All for the Song, drops in 2020, and last year they created music for 2 songs with newly discovered lyrics by John Denver.
The Arkansas-based whip-smart genre-hopping multi-instrumentalist duo Handmade Moments opened the show with passionate and humorous renditions of their organically jazzy soul-folk creations. Then it was time to hop on board Railroad Earth's wild trip through their oeuvre, featuring songs from almost every album including 4 tunes from their beloved debut The Black Bear Sessions. Their sound is impossible to capture in words ("Writing about music is like dancing about architecture" they say). The open-ended palette of possibilities begins with the honesty of acoustic instruments and unfurls like a tapestry until kaleidoscopic light shows swirl above mind-melting melanges of funky bass and drums, with each song a different stop along the line.
Easing out of the station, the friendly changes of midtempo earworm "Been Down This Road" washed over the crowd before they picked up speed with the rocking bluegrass rush of "Lordy Lordy." The down-home knee-slappin' instrumental "Shockenaw Mountain Breakdown" featured fiery banjo and led to the rootsy Americana rock of "When the Sun Gets in Your Blood." One of many aspects setting Railroad Earth apart is their penchant for weighty and introspective lyrics. "There are notes that ring eternal / There are songs that will remain" they sang in "Chains," a galloping country-tinged bluegrass number with a gorgeous goulash of acoustic guitar and mandolin outbursts.
The intense 9-minute political diatribe "Adding My Voice" embraced dark chords evoking the somber internalized rage of the defeated narrator, with colossal keyboards garnering an eruption of cheers. They elevated the excitement with the danceable rockabilly swing of "Waggin' the Dog", laying on the throttle with remarkable electric guitar and barroom piano solos. At about a minute per wolf, "12 Wolves" was the first of 5 tunes over the 10-minute mark and an indisputable highlight of the evening. After kicking off with pure funkgrass fury, they oozed into a minimalist groove like Talking Heads playing the Grand Ole Opry before opening up the dance party into a luscious jam. They wrapped up the first set with everyone contributing mightily to the solid rocker "Monkey."
The second set started with the catchy refrain of "It's So Good," with lyrics perfectly embodying the experience. "It's so good to be here again / It's so good to see a friendly face / It's so good to be here again / With all of my friends in one place." The next half hour consisted of just 2 songs, starting with a 15-minute expansive expedition through "Like a Buddha" which went off the rails from a deeply rhythmic slow churn into a gleeful and triumphant bounce. They followed with the 13-minute old-timey folk lament of "Potter's Field" enlarging into an immensely funky flow with intermingling instrumental interplay. The bona fide rock of "Lone Croft Farewell" led to the bowed bass and hushed crowd of "Raven's Child" to spotlight the subtle side of their sound, the delicate elegance that colors and augments their graceful arrangements.
They blew their stack with monstrous solos on the 9-minute jamband instrumental "Stillwater Getaway" and a 13-minute climb up "Seven Story Mountain," whose deep freight train rhythms anchored the whirling cavalcade of sounds swirling above. After unleashing a steady flurry of good cheer to warm up the winter evening, we finally reached our destination, a little weary but wiser for the journey. Once again these master musicians and empathetic souls had shined our dancing shoes and polished our perspective. At the end of the line was the funky encore "I Am a Mess," but first the bluegrass hoedown of second set closer "Peace on Earth" offered a spiritual culmination. "Heart mind as one, a circle growing / A universe in you and me / In returning to this golden moment / We sing with the heavens in harmony."
- Paul Kerr
- Photos by Jerry Friend