Now in its 22nd year, Railroad Earth completed a four-night Colorado run on its 2023 winter tour by celebrating the fifth anniversary of the newly remodeled Washington’s in Fort Collins on February 10th and 11th. The band, known to its fans the “Hobos” as a beautiful and beloved chugging locomotive traversing scenic vistas of bluegrassy Americana and folk rock, showed itself to be an absolute bullet train this past weekend, fueled in part by personnel changes following the passing of original member Andy Goessling in 2018 and the departure of bass player Andrew Altman in 2022.
Original members Tim Carbone (fiddle, guitar, vocals), Todd Sheaffer (guitar, vocals), John Skehan (mandolin, bouzouki, keyboards, vocals), and Carey Harmon (drums, vocals) are still conducting the iron horse’s engine, while newer members, Mike Robinson (acoustic, electric, pedal steel guitars, banjo, and vocals), Matt Slocum (keyboards) and Dave Speranza (bass) have seemingly put a little extra coal in the boiler.
Friday’s show opened with an intensely jammed-out “Black Elk Speaks”, lead singer-songwriter Todd Sheaffer’s thought-provoking tale of the plight of Native Americans told in his own words as well as those of a Lakota Sioux medicine man. As the song ended with the Black Elk’s declaration of the end of the indigenous American people’s “beautiful dream,” the band transitioned seamlessly into the title song of its 2002 album Bird in a House.
A signature characteristic of the band’s recent shows has been an abundance of interesting segues between songs and the one at the end of “Bird in a House” gave way to a crowd-pleasing “Mission Man”. A song of few words, it took the crowd on a nearly 12-minute psychedelic ride before, again without stopping, the first notes of “The Hunting Song” wafted out from the stage.
One of the defining traits of Sheaffer’s songwriting is his ability to take seemingly autobiographical and historical events and capture and evoke the emotions contained in them. As Sheaffer recalls various hunting trips from his childhood, he takes the audience through all the emotions that he experienced: excitement, frustration, beauty, and even tinges of horror. The mixed emotions of hunting gave way next to the trials of love with “Long Walk Home” from the band’s eponymous 2010 album. The set continued with two songs appropriate to Colorado, the first, the fun rollicking “Donkey for Sale”, and the second, “Mountain Time”. The set then closed with “Storms”, a beautiful song about weathering life’s difficulties.
The second set spared no time getting hot out of the gate by starting with an exceedingly improvised “Head”. “Grandfather Mountain”, about one of the oldest places on Earth, followed and gave way to a slow, jazzy “Black Bear”. Tim Carbone took lead vocal duties for the first time of the evening with a particularly high-energy version of “Crossing the Gap”.
The mystical crowd-pleaser “Mourning Flies”, featuring a soaring mandolin coda by John Skehan, was next and was followed up by two more of Railroad Earth’s history-laden songs. The first, “Hangtown Ball”, follows the exploits of a succession of men traveling west in 1849 to seek fortune and gold and each meeting their end in the hangman’s noose, and the second takes us further back in time with the Skehan-composed instrumental “1759”.
The set closed with the appropriate “Colorado” that recalls fun times past and “new ones coming on” in the Rocky Mountain state. For the encore, Todd Sheaffer put on his harmonica rack for Railroad Earth’s fun, danceable version of the originally slow Tom Waits song, ”Cold Water”.
The Saturday show started off with a fun “Elko” that had the audience tossing cards in the air every time Todd Sheaffer sang “I need a card, I need a card. Hit me! But not too hard!” The fun continued with the frequently played but unrecorded tune “Happy Song”. That song references a family gathering at which “vows will soon be spoken” and “a ring that never will be broken” portending a very special event that would take place later in the evening.
The first song of the two-night run from the band’s most recent album, All for the Song, “It’s So Good” followed. The love theme would then return for the next two songs, “The Butterfly and the Tree,” a high energy, rarer tune about lovers in a field painting each other, and “Real Love” off the band’s first album, The Black Bear Sessions (2002).
A fabulous rendering of The Waterboys’ classic “Fisherman’s Blues” was next followed by the Skehan instrumental, “Farewell to Isinglass” the title of which references Guinness beers’ discontinuation a few years back of fish bladder-derived gelatin in its Stout to make it available to vegan beer enthusiasts. The things we’ve learned from Railroad Earth songs! A wild jam then segued into the Sheaffer classic about the songwriting process “Where Songs Begin” to close the set.
The second set opened with the Eastern-flavored, “Seven Story Mountain” and then as Todd Sheaffer came to the microphone to tell the crowd about a special request that was made to the band, a gentleman in the front row got down on one knee to propose to his sweetheart. Apparently, the couple had attended their first Railroad Earth show together several years earlier at which the band played the Jorma Kaukonen song “Genesis” from his classic solo album, Quah, and for the proposal on Saturday the band honored the couple’s request and played it again.
Two bluegrass-tinged rave-ups, “Drag Him Down” and “RV”, came next followed by the rarely played “Waggin’ the Dog” off 2008’s Amen Corner. The introspective “Addin’ My Voice”, a folk song reminiscent of 1960s protest anthems followed, and segued into the instrumental “Stillwater Getaway”. After that was the new song, “Showers of Rain”, which references meeting the souls of departed loved ones in dreams and natural events such as unrelenting rainstorms and birds tapping on window panes. The audience was left dancing and smiling for the set closing “Like a Buddha” into “Bringing My Baby Back Home” and the guitar solo-laden encore “Hard Livin’”.
Railroad Earth’s incendiary winter tour continues with a number of dates in Utah and Montana followed by East Coast shows in March. Full details can be found on the band’s website. Check out a gallery of images from the Fort Collins run below courtesy of photographer David Tracer.
Railroad Earth – Washington’s – Fort Collins, CO – 2/10/23 – Full Audio
[Audio: gerry gladu]
Railroad Earth – Washington’s – Fort Collins, CO – 2/11/23 – Full Audio
[Audio: gerry gladu]
Setlist: Railroad Earth | Washington’s | Fort Collins, CO | 2/10/23
Set One: Black Elk Speaks> Bird in a House > Mission Man > Hunting Song >Long Walk Home, Donkey for Sale, Mountain Time, Storms
Set Two: Head, Grandfather Mountain > Black Bear, Crossing the Gap, Mourning Flies, Hangtown Ball > 1759, Colorado
Encore: Cold Water (Tom Waits)
Setlist: Railroad Earth | Washington’s | Fort Collins, CO | 2/11/23
Set One: Elko > Happy Song, It’s So Good > The Butterfly and the Tree, Real Love, Fisherman’s Blues (The Waterboys), Farewell to Isinglass > Where Songs Begin
Set Two: Seven Story Mountain, Genesis (Jorma Kaukonen), Drag Him Down, RV, Waggin’ the Dog, Addin’ My Voice > Stillwater Getaway > Showers of Rain, Like a Buddha > Bringing’ My Baby Home
Encore: Hard Livin’