Saturday night in San Francisco, the air was crisp and dry, and Railroad Earth was slated to finish out the second show of their two night run at the historic Fillmore Auditorium. Returning to California for the first time since a pair of what some recall as underwhelming performances at their own Hangtown Halloween festival last year, Railroad Earth would tonight deliver exactly the kind of inspired and moving music that brings their fans, the Hobos, out to see this band.
While California is in no way home turf for a band that hails from New Jersey, the Fillmore in San Francisco is a venue that brings out the best in musicians. Friday night was a strong show that featured up-and-comers Greensky Bluegrass warming up the venue nicely before Railroad Earth's very solid two sets. But Saturday was to take it up a big notch. With New Monsoon opening, and rumors of very special guests, anticipation ran high.
New Monsoon opened the night to a half empty Fillmore. Since downsizing from three to one drummers, the band has struggled to differentiate themselves from the masses of jambands that proliferate the scene these days. Their first several songs were noteworthy only for a lack of any of the ferocious energy New Monsoon has been known to wield. When four songs in, they began a cover of “Afro Blue”, one could only recall with nostalgia, the intensity with which New Monsoon would slay numbers like this back when they had their extra-sized rhythm section. After a somewhat subdued handful of tunes, John Skeehan from Railroad Earth joined them and nailed a huge mandolin solo.
The night was finally in gear, and only getting better as Tim Carbone joined the band the for the last two numbers of the set.
Carbone, Railroad Earth's virtuoso violinist, and Jeff Miller, New Monsoon's highly underrated lead guitar player, have a stunning musical connection that should not be missed. Both are naturally inclined to find searing peaks, and any time they join each other on stage the fireworks are phenomenal. Tonight was no exception. The Talking Heads' “Slippery People” provided the first opportunity for their musical interplay. Tim's violin was wrapped in an effect reminiscent of Jean-Luc Ponty, as he and Miller traded tasty licks that got the dance floor shaking.
The final song of the set was New Monsoon's super-grass banjo breakdown, “Daddy Long Legs”. Again the musical interplay of Carbone and Miller was stellar, as they flew through musical space at breakneck speeds in a sublime dance of virtuosity and attunement. As the musicians departed, the stage was well set for what was to come.
After a quick break Railroad Earth began the first of their two sets, starting things off with “Bird In The House”, the first of many crowd favorites. Todd Sheaffer's guitar tone hit right on, and the closing acapella harmonies were clear and sweet in this strong opener. The feel-good “Happy Song” followed next, but things really got going with the good time grooves of “Elko”, when hundreds of playing cards went flying through the air as Todd sang “I need a card, I need a card” (and cards hurt a lot less than a glow stick thrown at the back of your head). But the true highlight of this song was Tim Carbone's masterfully uplifting fiddle solo.
After this, the set took a turn for the mellower with Storms. The energy at Railroad Earth shows has been known to suffer during their many mellower songs, but tonight was one of those nights where every note rung right. The quieter songs like Storms all seemed to find their own intensity through the uplifting melodies, high grade song-smithing, and uniquely emotive vocals of lead singer and song writer Todd Sheaffer.
The up-tempo instrumental number “Stillwater Getaway” marked the band's first foray into over the top improvisational jamming. After some dynamic full band interplay and rousing leads by Skeehan's mandolin and multi-instrumentalist Andy Goessling on guitar, Tim Carbone did what he does best: Tim is one of the few musicians in the scene who possesses the ability to pull in all the available energy in a room and transmute it into frenetic musical exaltation that leaves one breathless. This was one of those moments, and the peak of the first set.
The powerful singing of Sheaffer marked the next song, Mourning Flies. While this was a softer flow than the music we had just witnessed, John Skeehan's mandolin brought the instrumental portion alive. A smooth segue took the band into the piercing vocals and sad lament of Lone Croft Farewell. And on this emotionally charged note, the set ended.
After another short break, the band retook the stage for the final set of the two-night run. They kicked things off with a moving, though somewhat played out, Mighty River before moving into a huge “Warhead Boogie”. Carbone's violin was once again the topper in this tour-d-force, but Skeehan played a powerful supporting role in a jam that peaked for several minutes before finding a mellower groove. Up next was an only slightly recognizable instrumental cover of The Congos' “Congoman Chant”. The improvisation that followed had a distinctly String-Cheesy feel, and as the band wandered through one of the only low points of the set, the techs set up the stage for a special guest.
Anticipation had been high all night with rumors of special guests swirling among fans. Many had suspected Phil Lesh was likely to make an appearance. Phil had sat in with the band in a 2005 San Francisco RRE show, and half the band would be joining Phil the following day at Terrapin Crossroads, Phil's new venue in San Rafael. (Opening officially last night March 17th) So it wasn't a complete surprise when the Grateful Dead's bass player appeared with his bass and aging smile, but the energy eruption was palpable as he strode across the stage. To make room for Phil, Andrew Altman gave up his bass slot and moved onto electric guitar. The band meandered musically, giving Phil time to plug into Altman's rig. When Phil was ready, the opening notes of “Terrapin Station” became detectable. As the opening melody grew more distinct it was clear that Terrapin, one of the few songs they had played with Phil previously, would provide the launch pad for this collaboration. Todd took the vocals and things were starting to gel, but Phil continued to have some issues with his sound, and he appeared distracted through most of the song. The first half of Terrapin had its moments, but everyone seemed to be adjusting and not yet fully relaxed. By the time they reached the instrumental conclusion, Phil had everything working, and up near the stacks his bass was crushing.
From a very solid “Terrapin Jam”, the band moved into the instrumental “Spring-Heeled Jack”. Phil began the song reading the chords from the sheet in front of him, but when the structure dissolved into improvisation, Phil looked much more relaxed as he glided through the layers of sounds that swirled around. Terrapin is a great song, but not one necessarily suited to the simultaneous wanderings of the many members of RRE. Cut loose from the confines of a slow and structured song, this ensemble now began to really find some interesting and intense musical space, with at least one clear “Slipknot” tease.
One of the things that sets RRE apart from other bands in the jam scene is their ability to take music to inspiring heights and stay there without overplaying the way so many guitar-led bands do. Relying only on musicianship, as opposed to a lot of effects and processing, Railroad Earth is able to ascend to these peaks and hover there, without beating a phrase or melody to death. “Spring-Heeled Jack” offered one of these sustained moments of euphoria, as well as a very fulfilling adventure into some darker terrain, and through it all Phil held down the low end, moving the music forward with that unpredictable and unmistakable phrasing of his. He was quite at home with this fluid and responsive playing, as the whole band listened intently to one another, building off each others' notes. The Dead songs were a treat, but musically this was the highlight of the night, the musicians pushing into the outer reaches of improvisation and playing to their true potential.
After this epic journey, Phil's intro bassline brought us into the gentle cradle of “Crazy Fingers”. The heartfelt vocals of Todd Sheaffer with Phil singing harmonies fit well, but it's a tricky song to do justice to, and this version fell a little flat. “Crazy Fingers'” conclusion brought the opening notes of Box Of Rain and, with it, Phil's first chance to sing. A bittersweet “Box Of Rain” provided a poignant conclusion to the special guest portion of the evening. The band was spot-on in their backing, and Phil's voice sounded as strong and strange as ever. After big smiles and brief hugs with most of the band, Phil left the stage. The band topped off the set with a short and energetic version of “Peace On Earth” and left the stage to howls of approval. Smiles abounded as they returned and launched into “Cuckoo Medley” for one last jiggy instrumental go 'round. Carbone's fiddle carried the day once again as the band made sure no one would go home unfulfilled.
I'm not sure whether the recordings will convey the energy and magic of this show but, the Fillmore was the place to be on this night. What would have been a very solid show in its own right became one for the record books with Phil's outstanding sit-in. This band from New Jersey continues to write and perform compelling and powerful music that shows no sign of letting up any time soon.