Inexplicably, there are some bands that I rarely see these days, but every time I catch them, I have a ton of fun. Railroad Earth is definitely one of these acts. I used to live to see these guys, but for whatever reason, I always seem to miss them now whenever they hit New York. On this particular date, I hadn’t seen Railroad Earth in exactly one year, and I was only going to this show because my good friend Sunshine Bob had really poured on the Jewish guilt and practically forced me to join him.
I drove out to Morristown, taking a wrong turn along the way and going a solid twenty minutes in the wrong direction. (Oh, how I love you, State of New Jersey.) I went into the venue and discovered that most of the crowd was crushed into the lobby. This was one of those weird concert venues where you can’t drink in your seat, and very little can stand between a Railroad Earth fan and his alcohol. People were pounding beers as quickly as possible during the opening act. The theater itself was very nice and large inside, and it was staffed by septuagenarians who were probably not prepared for the raucous crowd. By the time that Railroad Earth would take the stage, seat locations on tickets suddenly became irrelevant.
However, they weren’t on yet, as a band I had wanted to see for a long time, The New Riders of the Purple Sage, were on and churning out their patented brand of cowboy psychedelia. The New Riders have undergone just shy of a million lineup changes over the years, and the current roster includes 1971 originals David Nelson and Buddy Cage, along with crusty guitarist Michael Falzarano, bassist Ronnie Penque, and drummer Johnny Markowski. In the past I have made no secret of my dislike for Falzarano, a C-list celebrity who generally does nothing on stage but whose mere presence is inexplicably believed to lend credibility to shoddy Long Island Dead coverbands. That being said, this night was the first time I’ve ever heard Falzarano contribute something to the music, and I really enjoyed his hooks.
In recent years, Buddy Cage has made waves back acting like a grizzled old bastard, openly denouncing bands that he thinks suck and hearkening back to the good ol’ days. Physically, he looks like a mean sonofabitch who spits venom, and not surprisingly, he plays his pedal steel accordingly, ripping out nasty and fierce lines. David Nelson is his counterpoint, the playful old cowboy with a rambling and bubbling guitar. Penque and Markowski really add a lot to the group, providing an infusion of energy and fine backup vocals.
It seems to be an unwritten rule that audiences in seated venues will not get into the opening act. I don’t know why this always seems to be the case, but there was only a small cluster of us grooving off to the side in the aisle, digging “Diamond Joe” and “Higher.” Of course, more people did get into it after RRE’s violinist Tim Carbone came out to add some nice licks to “Peggy-O” and a rollicking “Glendale Train” finale. The band wanted to keep going, but their time was finished. It was really kind of silly that this show began at 8PM when there were two acts who wanted to play a lot but whose time would be truncated by a union-enforced 11PM curfew. Anyone ever heard of starting the show at 7:30 or 7:00? Unfortunately, this short set forced the band to omit a couple of gems that were written on their setlist, including “Take a Letter, Maria” and “Ripple.”
12/29/07 (Sat) Morristown Community Theatre - Morristown, NJ
Set 1: I Don't Know You, Contract, Henry, Absolutely Sweet Marie, Diamond Joe, Higher, Peggy-O*, Glendale Train*
* w/ Tim Carbone-Fiddle
I forgot to mention how Sunshine Bob had scored some killer seats. We were in the second row, and my seat was absolutely dead-friggin'-center. It was the perfect spot.
Railroad Earth didn’t come out firing on all cylinders, choosing to open with the mellower but profound “Everything Comes Together.” However, everything would change with the opening notes of the speedy “Dandelion Wine.” Instantly, the venue was transformed into a wild hoedown, and everyone was going crazy as the band pushed the tempos dramatically, which they would do for the next couple of songs. When “Peace on Earth” hit, I realized that Railroad Earth just might be the most jubilant band on the planet, as it’s really hard to listen to their music without being swept into their celebratory groove.
Of course, it’s not all sunshine and lollipops with these cats, as the lengthy jam through the dark and intense “Seven Story Mountain” would demonstrate. Buddy Cage’s sit-in on “For Love” was really kind of pointless and was almost an afterthought, considering that he was practically hidden offstage. However, the old gem “My Sisters and Brothers” really brought the room together. I often tend to forget about the amazing family atmosphere at Railroad Earth shows. The audience is filled with good-natured, salt-of-the-Earth people, and even a cynical asshole like me can let down his guard and join in the positive vibes that seem to flow freely throughout the generous crowd.
Once again, I left the venue thinking, “Dammit, I need to see these guys more often!” Granted they’re not always around, seeing as how this was apparently their first appearance in their native New Jersey in 400 days (or so said a homemade banner that several people were adamant that the band see). Regardless, I can’t think of another group with so many virtuosos. Mandolinist John Skehan has really mastered the art of counterpoint at breakneck speeds with his dexterous foil Carbone, and multi-instrumentalist Andy Goessling’s actions never ceases to amaze, including simultaneously playing tenor and alto saxes and making them each sound really soulful and beautiful-- sort of like Rahsaan Roland Kirk in a Motown band.
Unfortunately, a tight schedule forced me to quickly bolt out of the venue before being able to see all of my Jersey friends of years gone by, but I’m gonna be sure to drag my tail to another RRE show soon.
12/29/07 (Sat) Morristown Community Theater - Mayo Center for Performing Arts - Morristown, NJ
Set 1: Everything Comes Together, Dandelion Wine, Little Rabbit, Loving You, Peace on Earth, Seven Story Mountain, Old Man and the Land, Waterfountain Quicksand, For Love *, Railroad Earth, My Sisters and Brothers, Long Way To Go
E: Head, Keep Moving On **
* w/Buddy Cage (NRPS) on pedal steel guitar.
* First Time played, Sam Cooke cover.