Breaking news: The World’s Greatest Understatement was recorded last week when John Skehan of Railroad Earth told WRGW that the band likes to improvise at live shows. Their concert at Washington DC’s 9:30 Club, occurring only a few days after the statement in question, delivered over two hours of spirited, cohesive, and impressive musicianship. RRE certainly did play recorded favorites, but those tracks were more like guidelines— skeletons on which the band layered meaty muscles of creative, twangy, and fresh material.
New Jersey alt-country rockers Railroad Earth garner a broad spectrum of fans. The (sold-out) 9:30 Club was packed not only with the hip youth of DC, beards flowing gallantly and vintage cowboy boots stomping, but also with middle-aged “real people”: balding dads in Grateful Dead t-shirts and career women gleefully twisting and shouting, shedding the stress of the week’s Department of Transportation woes, keeping up with their younger counterparts. RRE’s preference for improvisation gives them a jam band-esque quality (hence the overwhelming presence of Dead paraphernalia) during their live performances that is not necessarily apparent in their recordings.
What was always apparent, whether listening to their records or watching them rock DC’s largest indoor venue, is that these guys are stellar musicians. They expertly passed solos back and forth, mainly between fiddle virtuoso Tim Carbone and banjo player/lead guitarist Andy Goessling. Singer Todd Sheaffer (who is also the band’s main songwriter) delivered clear, atmospheric lyrics, often referencing travel and the idea of “home.” He smiled constantly, while his bandmates traded solo performances, grinning as if thinking, “Man, whatta great band we are.”
The audience seemed to agree. Railroad Earth opened with a couple rip-roarin’, foot-stompin’ fast songs, giving the crowd no chance to think before forcing them to dance. Whether bobbing along, beer in hand, jumping, shimmying, or spinning their gals, no one on the floor stood still. Gazing up, it was obvious to the groundlings that even the more cautious folks on the second floor were living it up. Not all songs provoked wild dancing, though. Perhaps the majority of performance time was dedicated to slow, careful, soulful songs that sounded more folk than bluegrass. The audience was still receptive to these segments, although the mutual energy between the floor and the stage dropped noticeably. Perhaps it was a good thing, then, that RRE took a half-hour break around 10:30, returning reenergized and ready to rock once more.
RRE creates an important bridge between “country” and “alternative rock” at these live shows. The former genre sometimes renders cringes, especially from the blog-worshipping, Pitchfork-quoting kids of major east coast cities. But the power of this band to force even the frattiest intern to shake his hips demonstrates that Railroad Earth’s got big plans ahead, hopefully paving the way for more country bands in mainstream rock, as Wilco and the Avett Brothers have done. At least we, the Washingtonians, will welcome them with open arms.