Words by Brian Hoey

Chicago, IL. — Despite ostensibly touring in support of their recent eponymously titled studio release, veteran jam and bluegrass act Railroad Earth’s Saturday night performance at the Chicago House Of Blues must have had the whole crowd wondering if they had somehow stumbled happily back into 2006.

Certainly no one was complaining when the show (which would end up featuring only three tracks off of their latest LP) began with three tracks featured on the Stillwater, New Jersey based outfit’s 2006 live offering Elko, but once everyone had come off the high of hearing ‘Mighty River’, ‘Elko’, and ‘Colorado’ (though certainly not the only high going on), one had to wonder just what year it really was. In fact, it wasn’t until the back end of the first set, when the band took a psychedelia-drenched version of ‘The Forecast’, an otherwise bittersweet tune off of their penultimate studio effort (2008’s Amen Corner), and transitioned it into the biting hard rock of ‘Black Elk Speaks’ (Railroad Earth’s darkest track) that Todd Sheaffer and company gave any indication that time had passed since they released Elko.


But again, this certainly wasn’t an issue for the eclectic and excitably out-there crowd, who all twirled like it was a Grateful Dead show as the six distinguished-professor-of-renaissance-lit looking members of Railroad Earth tore through their peculiar blend of folk, bluegrass and rock. Seriously, if these guys were The Who, all of them would be John Entwistle: stoic, reserved, rarely cracking a smile as they stare intently into the fretboards that their fingers blur across like bluegrass tornadoes, and somehow they’re more endearing for it. The first set didn’t stand out for much more than a great setlist and a few flashes of brilliance by fiddle-virtuoso Tim Carbone and John Skehan, his mandolin counterpart, but by the time they had closed it out with ‘Mourning Flies,’ there was still a palpable effervescence in the air.

The second set, though, was another matter altogether. After grooving through a jaunty ‘Old Man and The Land’, longtime drummer Carey Harmon took charge of a few haunting, atmospheric measures, during which most of the crowd had the same revelation as the fine young gentleman standing behind me, who proclaimed “Holy shit, it’s ‘Seven Story Mountain’ Jesus Christ!” In my mind, at least, “Seven Story Mountain’ is the band’s ‘Mountain Jam’, and they soared through it like a bluegrass ‘Eat A Peach’. The energy level stayed high through the subsequent tracks, eventually exploding into an addictive version of ‘Dandelion Wine’ that was the most persuasive argument imaginable to move to Appalachia. They slowed it down after that, plowing through ‘Warhead Boogie’, and drew the moody cacophony at the end into a screaming version of ‘Spring Heeled Jack’, just the second song of the night from their most recent album. The second set culminated with ‘Potter’s Field,’ another newish one, whose brooding energy was contrasted by the set-closing ‘Peace On Earth,’ which seemed to radiate appropriate amounts of joy into the atmosphere, which lingered long after the show’s final notes were struck. 2006 wasn’t this good the first time around.

Set 1: Mighty River, Elko, Colorado, Came Up Smilin’, Water Fountain Quicksand, The Forecast – > Black Elk Speaks, Storms, Mourning Flies

Set 2: Old Man and the Land, Seven Story Mountain, Drag Him Down, Bird in the House – > Black Bear, Old Dangerfield, Dandelion Wine, Warhead Boogie – > Spring-Heeled Jack, Potter’s Field, Peace on Earth

E: Lovin’ You, Roadhouse Blues


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