The Round Hill VA paid host to RRE on October 2 and 20 2020 by Andrea Flohn. Photos by Mark Raker.
It has been a treacherous and lonesome walk over a moonless tundra for live music fans; especially those who have held onto hope for a fall concert run from their favorite band. Few stars have emerged among the starkness, if only for an instant to help guide our path toward normalcy, but our eyes still search for something more promising.
At last, the full moon rose over the icy terrain of the jam scene, and Railroad Earth announced a surprise on-sale for a non-drive-in outdoor concert which was originally to be held on October 2nd & 3rd. At the sight of this great spectacle in the sky, fans sprinted toward the ticketing site and tried their hands at winning a virtual dream come true. In retrospect, I might have waited until all of the hullabaloo was over, but the thrill of racing to get tickets was something I had missed. The site crashed, which caused a lot of fans to miss out on the action. Fortunately, the band heard about the mishap and decided to add an additional show to their run on Thursday, October 1st.
Luckily, both my boyfriend Evan and I managed to grab a ticket each for the original dates, which we really could not believe we had managed to do. Two weeks later as we drove down to Round Hill, Virginia for the shows, we listened to the recording from Railroad Earth’s Thursday show and commented on how tight they still sounded after not playing shows for so long. The more we listened, the more excited we became and the more unbelievable it was that we would soon be standing under the bright lights of a Railroad Earth show.
Around 5’oclock, we followed a few stickered-out vehicles from the interstate to a winding country road and onto the property of B Chord Brewing Company. At first glance, the parking lot seemed sparse of cars, and I wondered if we had made it to the right place. As we pulled onto the B Chord Brewing property, we rolled down our windows and found that we could already hear the twinkling sounds of John’s mandolin and Tim’s fiddle. In that moment I was overcome with excitement and bounced up and down in my seat until we parked the car.
We made our way across the sprawling backyard of the brewery taking in the sights of the Blue Ridge Mountains all around us and the way the sun made the landscape bleed golden hues. I noticed that a tender hush, rare in the concert and festival scene, had fallen over the fans. Their soft smiles and warm eyes spoke messages of gratitude for being able to find rest in live music after the long, cold journey without it. As we found a place to settle down, we listened to the band’s soundcheck, which included one of my favorite Railroad Earth songs, “The Great Divide”. I must admit, it was strange seeing the band standing and playing so closely to one another. In the past, I have seen them all play much larger venues, such as the Capitol Theatre. But it only perpetuated the togetherness we all felt in being there.
Around 6:30 that evening, Railroad Earth took the stage for Set I of their second show of the weekend. The first three songs, “4-20”, “When The Sun Gets In Your Blood”, and “Bread & Water” seemed a perfect accompaniment to the dwindling sunlight. As crowds of fans filtered onto the field and settled in, the band welcomed them with an old favorite: “Old Man & The Land”. Couples and friends wrapped their arms around one another and swayed along with “Lovin’ You”, then broke free to shake their bones to some of the deeper jams of Set I such as, “The Forecast” and “Grandfather Mountain”. To end the set, the band ripped through “The Great Divide”, filling my heart for the second time that day.
A striking, full orange moon led the way into Set II that night and the band decided to begin with a mystical, “Seven Story Mountain” jam. As Todd sang, Sometimes it’s hard to let it GO, it was as if his voice had stricken every tree in the forest. The sound plummeted back from the woods and the crowd threw their hands toward the moon; howling for more. The band fed the hungry crowd with a get-down, “Drag Him Down” and a deeply emotional and intentional, “Adding My Voice”. As I listened to Todd’s powerful words, I drew my eyes closed and wished that I could live in that moment forever.
A familiar beat broke me out of my dream, and just as I opened my eyes, the band cascaded into “Mighty River” which sent every fan into a dancing rage. Two of the band’s more ‘out-there’ jams followed: “1759” and “Goat”, in which Tim Carbone displays his mastery of the fiddle with a spacy breakdown. An intergalactic, “Like A Buddha” followed and was most likely the best rendition of this song I have ever heard them play live. Todd said, “Alright well let’s make some noise, we wanna hear it!” To which the crowd responded with a spirited chorus of yelps and whistles. In my opinion, this was the highlight of the night.
After a fifteen-minute Buddha, the band kept the pace with a swinging, “Give That Boy A Hand”, to which the crowd clapped along happily and hoped it wouldn’t be the last song of the night. Of course, after saying, “Thank you all so much, we love you take care”, Todd and the band returned to the pleading crowd to play an encore. Railroad Earth officially ended the night with “Sing For Me”, which is a cover and normally performed in tribute to the band’s late member, Andy Goessling. This was clearly an emotional song for the band to play and the crowd was well aware. They shouted words of love and kindness to the musicians as they went on. As the last note of the slide guitar rang out, the crowd thoroughly thanked the band with hearty applause. We could all hardly wait for another night with Railroad Earth.
We returned for our second night of Railroad Earth at B Chord Brewing Company around 5 p.m. with hopes that we would get to tune into another sound check. As avid left side stage people, it felt strange arranging our lawn chairs and blanket so far to the right of the stage, but I soon realized why it was the best place for us to be that evening. All from the vantage point of my seat, I listened as Tim Carbone, John Skehan, and Mike Robinson (one of the band’s touring members) warmed up their instruments to the song, “Loaded” by The Wood Brothers. From there, the members went their own ways to socialize, eat, and rest before their final performance of the weekend.
Tim Carbone came out from behind the make-shift fortress surrounding the stage and passed by my chair to chat with a few friends from the crowd. The fans welcomed Tim to their circle and commended him on the performances from the two previous nights. Tim humbly obliged them and even posed for a picture with the group before heading inside the band’s RV parked in the back of the brewery. A little while later, the band could be seen standing in front of the RV in a wide circle; instruments in hand. A few curious fans gathered closer to where the musicians stood and listened to their brief run through of songs.
At 6:30, just as the land was beginning to wrap itself in a golden veil, Railroad Earth brought the crowd together for, “Been Down This Road”. Once the band could see that everyone was in attendance and awake, Todd spoke: “Well hello, B Chord, remember us?” With a powerfully affirmative response to his question, Todd led the band into a slowly built “Head” which featured a foot-stomping breakdown by Mike Robinson on banjo. After the first, OOOOH, OOOOH, OOOOOH! Every person in the crowd was on their feet jumping and dancing along to the music with their hands in the air. The jam lasted over sixteen minutes and was complimented by the following “Good Life > Mourning Flies” jam which begins with an easy, Calypso style of bass, guitar, and mandolin and falls into a drums-intensive and keyboard rich classic Railroad Earth jam. Todd’s voice is like a whisper on “Mourning Flies” as he dives for the low notes and deep vibrato.
Tim Carbone led the next song, “Any Road” on vocals, in which the band brought the crowd out of their deep contemplation from “Mourning Flies” back to their dancing feet. Another deep jam followed as the band went into, “12 Wolves” which also features some striking banjo work from Mark Robinson, vocals by bassist Andrew Altman, and electric guitar by Tim Carbone. At the time, I thought this might be the highlight of the set for me, but that was only before hearing what followed. After “12 Wolves” came to an end, the band cast a twangy introduction to the Dead’s “Till The Morning Comes” over the crowd, and we all exploded into dance. We all swarmed the front of the stage and bopped along to one of our unspoken anthems, all smiles.
The crowd remained gathered in front of the stage for the following “It’s So Good” and everyone’s favorite crowd-participation song, “Elko”. As it is Railroad Earth tradition, when Todd sings, Need a card/ I need a card! Hit me lord/ not too hard! Oh, mama/ I need a winning hand! , the crowd throws playing cards at the stage. It had been such a long time that I had seen that torrent of cards falling down on my head that all I could do was throw my head back in laughter and disbelief. Set I of Night II was more than I could have asked for from my favorite band and as I walked back to my chair, I got a sense that I was not alone in feeling that way. The crowd had grown noisy with excitement; people unabashedly shared which songs were their favorite of the night so far, while others met up to grab another drink together.
The full moon did not rise during the set break this time, but much later in the evening. The darkness of the night contrasted with the myriad of string lights and hula-hoops across the field and reminded me of the summer music festivals that had long been forgotten through the pandemic. I realized then that I was lucky to be there; that we were all lucky to be sharing in an experience which is truly rare these days. I felt grateful for all of the years I had seen Railroad Earth at the Sherman Theater in Stroudsburg, PA for the Horn O’ Plenty shows. I also vowed that I would never complain about being cold inside a venue again, as the temperatures that night dipped below 45 degrees.
As bundled as we could be for the evening, the crowd joined one another on the field for Railroad Earth’s final set of the weekend at B Chord Brewing Company. They began with, “Stillwater Getaway”, a deep breakdown featuring skilled work on the mandolin by John Skehan and by Tim Carbone on the fiddle. I felt that this song best showcased both performers, but the bass solo performed by Andrew Altman at the finale of the song was a definite highlight as well. The band plinked and strummed their way into an easy moving “Hangtown Ball”, which featured some ragtime style piano playing by John Skehan, along with a few honky-tonk style solos.
The band followed with one of my favorite songs, “The Jupiter & The 119” on which I have always thought Todd’s voice sounded great. The song brought a sense of revival to the crowd, and soon the swayers turned into full-fledged dancing fools. At the breakdown, the band played softly, allowing Todd to make his proclamations, and the song ended with a dreamy, almost psychedelic outro which blended nicely with the gentle intro of “Captain Nowhere”. The song has always strangely reminded me of “Terrapin Station” by the Dead, as the lyrics and rhythm together pack a punch through the chorus. On the last note, Carey Harmon picked up the rhythm on drums and the band went into seven minutes of “Hard Livin’.” I felt chills cover my body as Todd sang out, “We’re gonna be forgiven/Of that haaaaaard livin! , and I suddenly felt that the ‘heavy load’ Todd was singing about could be translated into the weight of the journey back to some kind of live music standard.
The final two songs of the official set were, “Dandelion Wine” and “Running Wild” in which the crowd committed to standing once again, at the very front of the stage. Evan and I took the opportunity to enjoy a few last dances, and in some ways, everything felt like it was back to normal. Sure, we had to wear a mask over our faces; but they kept us warm that night. And while we couldn’t press ourselves against the rail this time, everyone had plenty of space to get down with their bad selves without throwing an unnecessary elbow or untamed mess of hair in someone’s face.
To end the night, Railroad Earth blessed the crowd with their self-titled song, “Railroad Earth”. Many of us choked back tears as the band sang together on the poetic lyrics which embody the freedom that is found in nature. It was almost too much to be listening to the song while looking over the mountains and then to the full moon. On the last line of the song, Oh mama/ please don’t make me lie, the band removed their hands from their instruments and sang into the soft darkness of the night. The crowd was silent for this bittersweet closing moment, and then erupted into praise. What had been so anticipated in my household throughout the pandemic, had come to an end. But I was sure that we were leaving Virginia with something more than what we had brought with us.
As we left our hotel the next morning, we noticed an unmistakable figure packing luggage into an SUV. “Wait! I think that’s Tim…”, I said not believing my own words. The next thing I knew, Evan had stopped the car and was rolling down his window. “Tim!” he shouted. Tim Carbone turned toward us, and Evan said, “Thanks for a real good time!” Tim smiled, raised a hand to us and said graciously, “My pleasure.” We drove off, trying to contain the freak out I knew was coming. Once we were out of view, I screamed and laughed like a maniac, punching my fists in the air. As if the weekend hadn’t already been filled with magic, I was able to thank one of my musical heroes for doing what he does. And since I have the opportunity now to thank them again, I would like to say, from the bottom of my musical heart, thank you Railroad Earth for sharing your light through this dark journey.
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