Steve at Telluride #18: Train Kept a-Rollin’ All Night Long
Oof. What day is it? Good morning from Telluride.
Shane and I made it all the way through Railroad Earth last night. This morning, I feel like I’ve been run over by a train. What a day yesterday. Beautiful weather, and the music was butt-puckeringly awesome all day. Today is cloudy, a chance of thunderstorms, but it’s another incredible lineup, so I hope you’re able to listen on koto.org. Their table from which they broadcast and interview artists is sitting right next to me here, and I’m getting to know the DJs. It also gives me the chance to chat with some of the artists, and so far, I’ve met John Cowan, John Oates, and members of Crooked Still, The Greencards, Zac Brown Band, etc.
So Railroad Earth last night. Back in the ‘70s, promoters and fans used to refer to New Grass Revival and the “Grateful Dead of Bluegrass,” an epithet that never fit (and that NGR disliked). Now thirty years down the long, strange trip, we have a band that suits the billing. Railroad Earth, like the Dead, play an unfussy slapdash brand of Americana, cross easily into several genres, allow for prolonged improvisational jamming, perform unpredictable never-the-same-twice setlists, and, in their aesthetic symbols, embody a groovy free-spirited lifestyle. That formula is one that has paid enormous dividends in the jamband (and, here, the jamgrass) subgenres, and RRE are this season’s jamgrass kings, hence their closing spot Friday night at the nation’s premier festival. They, of course, have an obsessive fanbase, many of whom follow them from show to show: Hobos, they call themselves. (Better than Earthlings, which I had originally predicted.) My own theory for why Railroad Earth has done so well with the hippie nation is that lead singer Todd Sheaffer sounds a lot like Jerry Garcia in his pinched, nasally delivery.
My least favorite aspect of the trend, from a musical standpoint, is the pointless, protracted jamming, which, after awhile, makes me feel like my brain is being sandpapered. I see nothing terribly thrilling about a guitarist going up and down the pentatonic scale for twenty minutes. But many newgrass bands couldn’t help but notice that the longer they noodled around, the more the kids in the audience acted like their minds were being blown—and you gotta give the people what they want. Todd Sheaffer, although he doesn’t possess remarkable vocal talent, is a prolific and thoughtful songwriter, but the songful aspect of RRE is pushed aside to allow the musicians to stretch out since it’s clear that jamming is where the ticket-sale revenue is. Similarly, back in ‘01 or so, Leftover Salmon noticed that String Cheese Incident was selling out amphitheatres, and suddenly every Salmon solo went to 256 bars, leaving Vince Herman with little to do, even though he’s a great singer and entertainer.
Anyway, RRE last night gave this hard-partying crowd a good, long show. My favorite segment was the in-the-moment transcendence of Sheaffer’s “Colorado.” At other times, I was bit bored by the waywardness of some of the arrangements, and by the time I made it to the tent, I was downright zombified. This morning Shane is on stage taking pictures of the tarp run, and we’re about to head into town for breakfast before the band contest finals this morning. I’ll check in with you in a bit.