Railroad Earth – Tickets – 9:30 Club – Washington, DC – March 10th, 2017
Doors: 7:00 pm9:30 Club
There’s a great scene in The Last Waltz – the documentary about The Band’s final concert – where director Martin Scorsese is discussing music with drummer/singer/mandolin player Levon Helm. Helm says, “If it mixes with rhythm, and if it dances, then you’ve got a great combination of all those different kinds of music: country, bluegrass, blues music, show music…”
To which Scorsese, the inquisitive interviewer, asks, “What’s it called, then?”
“Rock & roll!”
Clearly looking for a more specific answer, but realizing that he isn’t going to get one, Marty laughs. “Rock & roll…”
Well, that’s the way it is sometimes: musicians play music, and don’t necessarily worry about where it gets filed. It’s the writers, record labels, managers, etc., who tend to fret about what “kind” of music it is.
And like The Band, the members of Railroad Earth aren’t losing sleep about what “kind” of music they play – they just play it. When they started out in 2001, they were a bunch of guys interested in playing acoustic instruments together. As Railroad Earth violin/vocalist Tim Carbone recalls, “All of us had been playing in various projects for years, and many of us had played together in different projects. But this time, we found ourselves all available at the same time.”
Songwriter/lead vocalist Todd Sheaffer continues, “When we started, we only loosely had the idea of getting together and playing some music. It started that informally; just getting together and doing some picking and playing. Over a couple of month period, we started working on some original songs, as well as playing some covers that we thought would be fun to play.” Shortly thereafter, they took five songs from their budding repertoire into a studio and knocked out a demo in just two days. Their soon-to-be manager sent that demo to a few festivals, and – to the band’s surprise – they were booked at the prestigious Telluride Bluegrass Festival before they’d even played their first gig. This prompted them to quickly go in and record five more songs; the ten combined tracks of which made up their debut album, “The Black Bear Sessions.”
That was the beginning of Railroad Earth’s journey: since those early days, they’ve gone on to release five more critically acclaimed studio albums and one hugely popular live one called, “Elko.” They’ve also amassed a huge and loyal fanbase who turn up to support them in every corner of the country, and often take advantage of the band’s liberal taping and photo policy. But Railroad Earth bristle at the notion of being lumped into any one “scene.” Not out of animosity for any other artists: it’s just that they don’t find the labels very useful. As Carbone points out, “We use unique acoustic instrumentation, but we’re definitely not a bluegrass or country band, which sometimes leaves music writers confused as to how to categorize us. We’re essentially playing rock on acoustic instruments.”
Ultimately, Railroad Earth’s music is driven by the remarkable songs of front-man, Todd Sheaffer, and is delivered with seamless arrangements and superb musicianship courtesy of all six band members. As mandolin/bouzouki player John Skehan points out, “Our M.O. has always been that we can improvise all day long, but we only do it in service to the song. There are a lot of songs that, when we play them live, we adhere to the arrangement from the record. And other songs, in the nature and the spirit of the song, everyone knows we can kind of take flight on them.” Sheaffer continues: “The songs are our focus, our focal point; it all starts right there. Anything else just comments on the songs and gives them color. Some songs are more open than others. They ‘want’ to be approached that way – where we can explore and trade musical ideas and open them up to different territories. But sometimes it is what the song is about.”
So: they can jam with the best of them and they have some bluegrass influences, but they use drums and amplifiers (somewhat taboo in the bluegrass world). What kind of music is it then? Mandolin/vocalist John Skehan offers this semi-descriptive term: “I always describe it as a string band, but an amplified string band with drums.” Tim Carbone takes a swing: “We’re a Country & Eastern band! ” Todd Sheaffer offers “A souped-up string band? I don’t know. I’m not good at this.” Or, as a great drummer/singer/mandolin player with an appreciation for Americana once said: “Rock & roll!”
Whether alone with just the guitar and his voice or surrounded by a full band, Cris Jacobs enchants listeners with his inspired, poignant songwriting, virtuous guitar playing, and soulfully transcendent voice. Artists across the board have discovered Jacobs’ musicianship and supple versatility, resulting in an impressive variety of formats in which he has played over the last few years. After a decade, five records, and 200 shows a year as principal songwriter and frontman for beloved Baltimore-based band The Bridge from 2001-2011, Jacobs wasted no time continuing to write music of his own and exploring different configurations for his craft. He released his debut solo album, Songs for Cats and Dogs, in 2012, and continued to perform relentlessly, both with his new band and as a solo artist. In doing so, he quickly garnered the admiration of a variety of predecessors and peers: rock legend Steve Winwood saw Jacobs perform in 2014 and soon invited him to open his national tour. The following year, Sturgill Simpson extended the same invitation. Never limited by genre, Jacobs and New Orleans heavyweight Ivan Neville recorded a collaborative album under the band name “Neville Jacobs”, which will be released in 2017. As an adapting, evolving, versatile musician who has survived on his own merit, Jacobs continues to win over audiences of many tastes, as he brings his characteristic authenticity and soul to every set.
Jacobs feels there are common threads across many genres of music, and he has harnessed over a decade of trans-genre exploration on his second solo album, Dust to Gold, due for release on October 21, 2016, from American Showplace Music. The album is a soul-stirring expression of the current chapter of his creative evolution, featuring twelve well-crafted songs that masterfully weave through the sweet and rugged landscape of soul, country, folk, blues, gospel, and rock and roll. Through every turn, one can easily feel Jacobs’ reverence to his influences, but the result is an original, eclectic record with a sound that is authentically his. In a given moment, Jacobs’ guitar playing is gritty, soulful, rich, and lyrical. It’s subtle, yet adventurous. His voice is at once sweet and sultry, with a honeyed whiskey croon that delivers his thoughtful, expressive lyrics.
I know that the well I seek is bound to be the deepest of all been ever told I know that to plant a seed is alchemy, we can watch the dust turn into gold.
So sings the hypnotic refrain in “Turn Into Gold”, a meditative slide-guitar rocker where Jacobs sings about channeling the muse, or “tapping the source”, as he calls it. It’s about the desire to be “enraptured in the mystery, the unknown, the questions, the answers all at once,” Jacobs describes. This is the place in which his songwriting occurs, and from where Jacobs’ performances derive so much electricity. In discussing the song’s inspiration, Jacobs reflects, “if I’m playing or singing and I’m really connected to that source and I’m really locked in and there’s a room full of people experiencing that, the hope is then for them to get locked into their own thing, and it’s this beautiful, ecstatic magic that happens. To me, this is that elusive goal that I chase every time I sit down to write a song or every time I get on stage to perform.”
Other songs on Dust to Gold paint Jacobs’ desire to express the beauty and struggle of the human condition. In “Cold Carolina”, Jacobs pleads softly and emotively about a despondent relationship, the feeling of displacement, and the seeking of redemption, of salvation. In “Little Dreamer”, Jacobs, accompanied by his wife, Kat Jacobs, sings sweetly to their unborn child, whom he discovered was on the way only moments before leaving to start recording the album. “It’s a blink of an eye, this life / tiny grains in sands of time / so tie your purposes on wings and fly to the heavens with the grace and courage of a thousand kings”, he sings to the tiny, nascent being.
The opening track, “The Devil or Jesse James”, is a rousing mixture of New Orleans rhythm, blues, and rock and roll with ethereal tendrils of psychedelic guitar reaching out across the soundscape; painting a tale of a man trying to change identities and run away from one’s past. On the album, the full band includes a richly funky rhythm section, featuring Todd Herrington on bass, Dusty Ray Simmons on drums, as well as John Ginty on Hammond organ and keyboards, who has been a master side man for years, working with Robert Randolph and the Family Band, Jewel, Citizen Cope; and most currently tours with the Dixie Chicks.
Though “Dust to Gold” clearly showcases Jacobs’ well-worn songwriting chops, he is an improviser at heart, and he brings the spirit of seeking and living in the moment to the stage each time. In every performance, he tries to push the envelope, exploring the depth of each song anew. Whether live or on the album, Jacobs’ dynamic voice and guitar envelope the listener completely and instantly, transporting you into the rich, sultry folds of his soulful sound.
Cris Jacobs continues to nurture a devoted audience that knows that whatever the instrumentation or setting he plays, it will be richly authentic, and conveyed with an improviser’s curious spirit and palpable presence. We can only expect further evolution from Jacobs, an artist constantly inspired by the search for “those beautiful, sad, inspiring, heartbreaking magical corners of life. The most rewarding, and terrifying part of trying to be an artist is the journey itself, the vulnerability and riskiness in seeking them out trying to express them. Sometimes you hit dead ends, and sometimes you strike pure gold.”
815 V St. NW
Washington, DC, 20001
815 V St. NW
Washington, DC, 20001