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Album Review

Railroad Earth, the string band from New Jersey that has amassed a following in the Rocky Mountains, has made three studio albums. But the real test of a jam band, of course, is its live work, and Elko, Railroad Earth's fourth release, is the inevitable double-CD concert album. The sextet has an instrumentation that suggests bluegrass — an acoustic guitarist, a violinist, a mandolin player, a multi-instrumentalist who plays banjo and Dobro among other things, and a rhythm section of acoustic bass and drums. But it is not shy about using amplification so that the stringed instruments can be heard over the drums, or effects more typical of an electrified ensemble. Thus, the guitar solos that decorate "The Hunting Song," "Head," and "Warhead Boogie" may be played on an acoustic instrument in the technical sense, but they sure sound electric, and the music makes use of echo and other forms of sound manipulation. Still, the overall effect retains a modified acoustic feel. It isn't hard to imagine what records these musicians have on their shelves, say Workingman's Dead and American Beauty by the Grateful Dead, Rubber Soul by the Beatles, John Wesley Harding by Bob Dylan, and Music from Big Pink and The Band by the Band, and throw in recordings by New Grass Revival and the Rowan Brothers, plus, perhaps, the Waterboys' Fisherman's Blues. Lead singer and primary songwriter Todd Sheaffer particularly suggests the Waterboys' Mike Scott in his nasal tenor, which listeners also may hear as resembling Arlo Guthrie, Tom Petty, or Rodney Crowell. The question of whether or not Railroad Earth can jam, if it were really in doubt, is swiftly answered on a 126-minute collection of 12 songs, five of which run over ten minutes each. If there is any discordance in the band's music, it is between Sheaffer, whose songs, with their soul-searching lyrics, sound like singer/songwriter fare, and the rest of the group, which sometimes swamps those songs with their extended, exploratory improvising. The four string players achieve an instrumental cohesion that suggests bluegrass, while the rhythm section throws in occasional world music elements — a Jamaican reggae beat here, a Celtic, African, or Middle Eastern cadence there. Repeating eight songs from the band's previous studio efforts, Elko sums up where Railroad Earth has been and suggests where it's going. Of course, it also makes a terrific invitation to see them live.

Biography

Formed: 2001 in Stillwater, NJ

Genre: Rock

Years Active: '00s, '10s

Railroad Earth emerged from the breakup of one of New Jersey's most popular bands, From Good Homes, in early 2001. Later that year, with appearances at some of the major summer festivals on the bluegrass circuit under their belt — including the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival, and High Sierra Music Festival — Railroad Earth showed that their music could go well beyond the realm of traditional bluegrass to incorporate folk, Celtic, jazz, and rock music. Todd Sheaffer,...
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Elko, Railroad Earth
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