Friday, March 20, 2009

Crooked Still & Railroad Earth at The Birchmere

On Thursday April 19th we skipped March Madness and saw an awesome show at The Birchmere by two acts we have really come to admire: Crooked Still and Railroad Earth. This was also the first opportunity to see each act at an actual venue and not a festival.

Crooked Still opened the night and in our opinion, they could have been the headliner. The band is finishing a quick Spring Break Tour! as fiddler Brittany Haas gets a week off from Princeton and her thesis. Their set solidified in our minds that the lineup transformation that occurred last year has really improved their sound. The band was always solid with the nucleus of Aoife O'Donovan, banjo player Greg Liszt, and Corey DiMario on the bass cello. But the addition of Hass and cellist Tristan Clarridge has expanded their sound - and Haas is something else on the fiddle. We also enjoy watching Liszt; he grooves more like a bass player, and with his 4 fingered style can pick with the best. And Ms. O'Donovan was her bluesy, sultry self. Most of the songs were from their latest two CDs Still Crooked and Shaken by a Low Sound including Undone In Sorrow; Captain, Captain; Tell Her To Come Back Home; Oh, Agamemnon; Can't You Hear Me Callin'; and the ever popular Oxford Town. They also sprinkled in a couple new originals (Cold Mountains was one) as well as covers from Robert Johnson, Gillian Welch and Neil Young. This was a great show, given to a large, sold out audience; we can't wait for festival season.

As much as we liked Crooked Still, it was apparent throughout the night, who the crowd was there to see. When the doors opened, the first row of tables were immediately filled with Railroad Earth fans - many who regularly follow the band. A mini Grateful Dead fanbase. This tour is still in support of their latest CD, Amen Corner, which we think is their best effort since Bird in a House. And this performance they played some of our favorite songs from the album: Been Down This Road; Crossing The Gap; and Bringin' My Baby Back Home. But it was finally hearing them at an indoor venue that really opened my eyes - and ears. Each artist in the band is an amazing musician and this is easily overlooked at festivals when the music just spreads out. But indoors, close you eyes and within the bands overall sound you can hear each distinct contributer: John Skehan (mandolin), Tim Carbone (violin), Johnny Grubb (upright bass), Carey Harmon (drums), and Andy Goessling on everything (acoustic guitar, banjo, dobro, lap slide guitar, pennywhistle). The overall sound is orchestrated by frontman Todd Sheaffer whose unassuming style allows the other band members to take center stage. But make no mistake, Sheaffer is in control - here and there he will give a subtle indication and Skehan start improving on the madolin, or Carbone on the violin. All the while, he retains a constant grin showing that he enjoys his job and appreciates his band mates.

And so did the audience. We've never seen a more crowded show and almost immediately the concert hall was converted into a dance hall. These fans digg the music. And we dugg watching the musicians - which instrument would Goessling play next; how does Skehan play that on such a small neck; listen to that bass groove from Grubb. It was a constantly changing flow of sounds- awesome. Forget the festivals; we're following Railroad Earth to indoor venues. That's where we can really appreciate their music. Too bad popular culture doesn't; these guys should be the face of the Opry, not the latest non talented pretty face.

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