It started with a slow, purposeful beat from drummer Carey Harmon, followed by a careful fiddle line from Tim Carbone and a rapid round of banjo picking by Andy Goessling. And then mandolinist John Skehan had his turn in the solo spotlight, and from there, plenty of instrumental interplay between the members of Railroad Earth continued before the venture finally formalized into a rendition of "Head." It was just one of the band's lengthy and multi-layered renditions at the Ogden Theatre, and the capacity crowd showed plenty of patience. They hung on every note, every solo and every pause before guitarist and vocalist Todd Sheaffer finally started singing. As he broke into a spirited round of "Ooohs" to introduce lyrics about flying and trying to turn on his own head, fans followed his lead, offering a resonant chorus.
That back-and-forth between complex, dizzying instrumentals and singable, accessible anthems was a constant feature of Railroad Earth's lengthy set on the first of a three-night stint at the Ogden and the debut performance of the group's 2013 winter tour. During a performance broken into two parts that went well past midnight, the band offered the frenzied crowd plenty of different sounds.
At times, the performance felt like an old-fashioned bluegrass hootenanny, with the band breaking into fiddle-based reels in 2/4 time that would have fit an Appalachian porch performance from the turn of the century. Other moments were much more progressive, with the sextet delving into odd time signatures, unorthodox musical structures and lengthy jams.
It was a mix that came in part from a diverse array of instruments. Bassist Andrew Altman switched between upright and electric. Goessling started on banjo, but quickly progressed to saxophone, guitar and flute. Skehan took time away from the mandolin to strum on the bouzouki. That variety lent for a rich palette of sounds, as did some help from special guests for the musical experimentation. Bill Nershi of the String Cheese Incident joined the group for several songs throughout the performance, and a trumpet player appeared for the first song of the second set.
The total effect was impressive, so much so that it was hard to imagine the group keeping up the pace for two more nights. The overall feel of the show was dizzying and disorienting, and only partly because of the music. The crowd that packed every corner of the Ogden lent the show the feel of an outdoor festival.
That frenzy kicked off from the first strains of the band's first song, an instrumental number that saw each instrumentalist taking the first of what would be many solo rounds to come during the rest of the night. Assembled under a massive tapestry of an owl that shifted colors and shapes under different blacklight cues, the band then went on to offer a tour through all phases of their repertoire. The journey found a complement in a carefully designed stageshow, a performance that included precise lighting changes according to cues in complicated songs.
"Potter's Field" from the band's 2010 self-titled album, featured plainspoken lyrics from Sheaffer about a rambling traveler burdened by memories, while "Happy Song" included some top-notch banjo work by Goessling, and "Old Man and the Land," from 2006's Elko, started in a minor key and morphed into a reggae ballad. Sheaffer was duly respectful in his lyrical take on "The Cuckoo," a folk ballad that goes back centuries. Bill Nershi appeared to play guitar on the final song of the first set, an epic take on "Elko."
The second half of the show was more ambitious and experimental than the first. Goessling showed his prowess as a multi-instrumentalist, taking turns on saxophone and flute for lengthy tunes that rapidly shifted direction. "Too Much Information" offered an unorthodox time signature, and the band committed to a long suite in their delivery of "The Forecast," "Mighty River" and "The Jupiter and the 119." The songs bled into each other, and the music took complex turns, changed keys and veered into long rounds of solos. Still, every tune felt distinct, especially with the benefit of a chorus from a theater packed with fans.
That massive crowd seemed willing to dance and sing along with every unexpected twist and experimental shift. It would be easy to chalk up that participation to the streams of alcohol coming from the bar or the clouds of smoke that constantly hovered above the crowd, but that would be too easy. Railroad Earth played for an utterly devoted audience, a fanbase willing to dance to every song and return to the Ogden for two more nights of shows.
The sextet Good Gravy offered a solid opening set, a performance that drew largely from traditional bluegrass cues. The songs were long, the solos involved and lyrics predictably rooted in rural themes (there were mentions of tumbleweeds and cow herds). A full percussion section was the only unorthodox part of the band's approach. That section even included a digital sampler, a machine that provided eerie sound cues over the expected guitar solos, mandolin strains and stand-up bass lines.
Personal Bias: I always enjoy hearing different versions of the old folk standard "The Cuckoo." Railroad Earth's version was pretty respectable.
Random Note: It was impossible to escape the dancing. Concertgoers were dancing in the halls, on the floor in front of the stage, in the balcony and near the bathrooms. Some of the moves were pretty damned ridiculous.
By The Way: The String Cheese Incident's Bill Nershi reappeared during the second half of show to lead an original honky-tonk number.
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