In this modern era of tweeting, poking, and cropping out loved ones, it is a true rarity to get someone on the phone and really chat. Sure, there are a few exceptions to this, namely gossipy women, crisis hotlines, and formerly Mrs. Cleo, but in 2013, my Godmother texts me "Happy Birthday." And it's not to say those communications are lesser-than, but let's be real: they are. We're just used to it and that's the norm, so instead...they just float out there as motions we go through like defrosting the chicken; "Congrats on your new baby. Can't wait to meet my niece," sent with the flick of the wrist instead of picking up the phone to call your own flesh and blood. Leave it to the magical realism of Railroad Earth (RRE) to change it up and remind of us of our roots.
I was lucky enough to spend some q.t. this week chatting with the super-chill, multifaceted RRE mandolin player and vocalist John Skehan over the phone, and it was really a treat. There's something charismatic and even feverish about sharing enthusiastic conversation with someone who loves what you love, and I feel extremely honored and humbled to have done so with John, who helps create some of the very music that makes my soul shake (in the best way). And it's not just me that loves the New Jersey sextet- when we spoke, he was in Denver, CO, coming off their first run of the 2013 Winter tour, over three nights this past weekend at the Ogden Theater (Jan 18-20). All three shows sold out before show time, which was a first for all shows over a three-night stay in Denver, according to John, which is testament to their ever-growing fan-base and welcoming community. Given that tidbit, I probably don't have to do much convincing to get you out to the House of Blues here in Chicago this Friday, but just in case, here are some reasons you should join us.
1. They are FUN, and there is something for everyone.
Look. It's gonna be Friday night whether it's cold or not, so seriously get over the whole hibernation thing. I've been at a RRE show and I can tell you that the energy is HUGE and the crowd is generally full of really nice people looking to get their faces blasted off by RRE's malleable mixture of dirt-kickin bluegrass, blues, country, Celtic, improvisational/jam, Cajun and really just good old-fashioned, string-charged, hard-hitting rock n' roll. From what John says, Denver was a great launch for the Winter tour to warm up early and stay hot. "The energy was full," he said, "and that is what keeps us going show to show. When you feel it coming back from the audience, it's really something." The thing is, John, and his five bandmates (Todd Sheaffer, lead vocals, acoustic guitars, songwriter; Tim Carbone, violin, vocals; Andy Goessling, acoustic guitars, banjo, dobro, mandolin, flute, pennywhistle, saxophones and vocals; Carey Harmon, drums, hand percussion, vocals; and Andrew Altman, upright bass) ...they love to play music. And when they're having fun on stage, we're having fun in the crowd...and nothing is better than everyone getting together to have some fun.
2. Anything can happen at a Railroad Earth show
Everyone knows that when you're good at an instrument (or in RRE's case, many instruments), you're cool. Something about sharing something you make, with people and it makes them FEEL, feel anything, just makes you a straight up wizard if you can get the work. You can tell that the guys in RRE like to have a good time as wizards of the open road, and it doesn't stop within the band. John mentioned playing in the past w the likes of Phil Lesh (Grateful Dead) in his hometown of San Francisco last year, as well as Billy Nershi in his home state of CO, even this past weekend. Nershi joined RRE on Friday in Denver, along with Dan Sears on flugelhorn second set. According to John, "Billy just heard we were in town, called us up, and said, hey, I'd love to come pick with you guys. Billy just loves to pick." Not a bad call to get! Sunday, Andy Hall (Infamous Stringdusters) joined in as well, and all of this was on a whim...friends just getting together to play some tunes. Sometimes you just get those cool surprises when you're cool, and lucky for us...RRE is of the sharing kind. And when you're in the crowd, and your adrenaline is pumping, and those cool surprises get announced, and the fiddle starts to noodle, and you look up at the band, and they're all smiling, and you're doing it too...just realize this is a once in a lifetime gift, given by the universe and prepared over the last 13.7 billion years. And that, too, is very cool.
3. RRE Loves Chicago!
If you look at RRE's tour schedule, they are seriously going to cover all corners of the country over the next three months. As fans, we have to appreciate this as they will likely jot down some notes for their new album in the works, since a lot of their songs are stories about American landscape and tribulations. I asked John where his favorite place to play was, or if he was looking forward to somewhere new they're heading, and he noted that "Any given night it can change. Once you're on the stage and playing, and the audience is there, that’s the most important thing. A lot of memories are tied to lots of different places, and each city takes on its own story and own dimension. We do love Chicago, and the House of Blues. We've seen a lot of growth there, which is great, and we can't wait to get back." It should be noted how much John loves San Francisco, too, which also holds a very special place in my heart. I think Chicago and SF share at least one common denominator, in that both cities have serious swag. The lyrics to Shakedown Street, "Dont tell me this town ain't got no heart -when I can hear it beat out loud," could be said of both, and I think the same can be said for RRE...if they were a town. These guys have a lot of heart, they put it on the line with killer showmanship for their audience every night, and they really connect with each city they play in, which is pretty remarkable going at their pace. Since Sunday's third Denver show, the guys will have had one day off, and traveled by bus to five different cities, to five shows, in five days. That's love, man.
4. The band is extremely creative. You are guaranteed to feel inspired!
Coming up in the next year, RRE is not just going to be working on a new studio album, but working on a new way to bring together the RRE community at Camp Railroad as well. Camp Railroad will be an intimate 150-person gathering together with the band at Full Moon Resort in Big Indian, NY (June 10-14). Here they will lead classes and workshops, and join campers in jams and other activities that will allow people to get a better understanding of just how RRE operates. You can sign up now for Camp Railroad, but keep an eye out on their home site for info on the upcoming album release. According to John, we likely won't hear much of that until it's closer to being released, so standby for now. Impressively, not only are they starting anew in some arenas, but they are also continuing to sculpt and develop their West Coast Halloween festival, The Hangtown Halloween Ball, which just began two years ago. In John's words, they are "lucky" to have their own festival up and running within two years, but I wouldn't call it luck. They put together an awesome lineup both years, and each time innovatively improvised soundtracks to silent movies that played for the audience to watch along with the music. In 2011, they scored Nosferatu (1922), the first vampire movie, and last year in 2012 they performed along with Dr. Jekkyl and Mr. Hyde (1931). Both performances were for one night of the fest each year.
5. YOU can be a part of the improvisational conversation.
Just as the theme of friendship and open-communication flows through RRE and their community, so it does on stage, within the band as they create the soundscape of our evening. I asked him how they pick a setlist each night, or how they make the same song sound so different than they did even just last week. He noted their lack of studio time, especially due to the setback and devastation of Hurricane Sandy, which affected RRE and their NJ studio this past fall, but that they find ways to either "resurrect something old, or start up something new" so that each performance is fresh. He noted that each night, similar to each city, is a different feeling, and during soundcheck, they will play around with different techniques while warming up- working the effects of delay and reverb, weaving textures and layering different dimensions of sound to create this new "conversation," as he calls it, each time they take the stage. I think the most powerful thing John discussed, that we can all take away from, whatever our craft, is letting the song- be the song. "Well, you know, we have to keep it interesting for ourselves as a band, but really it's just: what does the song have, and what does the song want to be? " John said. We talked further about letting the song develop, and what that means to RRE on this tour especially. "When we think of our music as a conversation, it can go all night if we let it, and we are stepping into the improvisational conversation in a big way." I personally cannot wait for Friday, and encourage you, too, to join in on the improvisational conversation. Tickets are still available here, but don't wait too long, as it's likely to sell the F out per my calculations. Let's do this! (Friday 1/25/13 @ Chicago House of Blues, 329 N. Dearborn: Doors at 7pm, Showtime 8:30pm. Show is opened by dancegrass band Whitewater Ramble)