When the announcement about three nights of Railroad Earth at The Fillmore came out, I knew I had to hop on the train for at least one ride around the track. To make the three night run even sweeter, there would be a different opening act each night. I got an email from my very favorite northern CA high octane hootenanny bluegrass boys Poor Man’s Whiskey to make some noise about their opening night on Thursday, I knew I had to make it work. I had to be in Sacramento on Friday for a meeting (my paying job) so to hit the show on the way I’d be tired for sure, but you only live once, right? “Sleepin’s for babies”, as an old flame of mine once quipped. At times like this, that is my motto.
I showed up at the door pretty much just in time. Give my name to find no photo pass, but an all access pass instead. “You can’t take pictures with this,” she says. “Take this and go backstage and find them. If you don’t get a photo pass, you can’t take pictures.” No pictures? Hum. Go backstage it is then! (Seriously, twist my arm please…..) I peek backstage just as the fellas are grabbin their instruments. I quickly catch Jason’s eye, show him the all access and let him know I can’t take shots unless I have a photo pass too. Josh says “Whoops, sorry about that!” No worries, it’ll all work out. I love The Fillmore and their staff – cool people, they’ve seen me there before so I knew they wouldn’t hassle me too much. And, I kind of like the all access pass (um, who wouldn’t?). I can get pretty good shots from upstairs or side-stage and not have to fight the crowd. Being vertically challenged and all, it is hard to get some pictures from right in front of the stage with the monitors in the way.
What I love about Poor Man’s Whiskey is they are just REAL people, super kind guys making a lot of high energy fun, and having a blast right along with their fans. If you like bluegrass, you love bluegrass. If you love bluegrass, you’ll adore these guys. I most enjoy covering bands that I really like, well, who wouldn’t and that’s pretty much why I do this – so I can get my camera in and take pictures (I’ve been doing it since college when the Grateful Dead didn’t care too much). Writing the review is another creative outlet. Its really too bad I have to have another job, that takes a lot of my time, or I would fit a heck of a lot more of this into my day. When I look back at the pictures of PMW, they seem to be smiling as big as I had fun that night. Its that “you look like I feel” moment, you know?
Flagged with a pass on each leg (put ’em where they are visible, if they don’t recognize you, the folks at The Fillmore check your pass a lot so have it handy) I was ready for the show to begin. There wasn’t a lot of people inside just yet. The ticket said show at 8, and those who know PMW were certain to be inside right on time. Starting out down on the floor of The Fillmore, right at crowd level, they open with “Rocky Top Tennessee”, a bit of a sing-a-long if you know it. “Rocky top, you’ll always be, home sweet home to me. Good ole Rocky Top, Rocky Top Tennessee!” The small crown surrounded them, got in real close to hear the softness of the acoustic guitar, the sweetness of the mandolin, the lively swirl of the banjo, the subdued thump of the stand-up bass, and the warm-hollow sound of the suitcase. Yes, the suitcase. Well, you can’t drag a drum-kit down and back up to the stage as easily as, say, a mandolin. Right George?
Back up on the main stage, they go into “Goodbye California”, the title track from a 2011 release. There’s just an easy beat to this song, a smooth sway that you can’t help but to tap your toes (save the foot stompin’ for just a moment). Distant dreams, sun shining, goodbye CA – leave it all behind, another day and I’ll be gone, you’re in my heart and on my mind, goodbye. Standing in a crowd feeling alone, don’t feel safe unless you are traveling alone, paint a picture of a dream, forgotten time, sometimes blind from the sun, days pass by,
Next up, get ready folks, you had your chance to rest. Now it’s time to “stomp your feet on the ground!” They invite one Tim Carbone to scorch the fiddle for “Humboldt Hoedown”. Can I just say, I LOVE THIS SONG! “Have a good time, feelin’ fine, pass that bottle on down the line!” Yeah, to say the least! Can I get a “yee-haw!” And with Tim Carbone playing the fiddle with the fury of a mad scientist, the energy of this song was explosive. And one other thing – the crowd looses all control,
cannot be contained, was so stirred up stomping their feet on the ground that the darn floor was expanding and contracting under me. I’m trying to hold still to get that shot and the whole darn place is movin’, and I ain’t talkin’ just human feet and bodies, I’m talkin’ floors and walls people, floors and walls. Not that I’m complaining or anything….
Surprised by the next song on the list, Chris Haugen takes the mic for “Deal”, a lively cover of a familiar Grateful Dead song that keeps Carbone at the fiddle and brings a Ben Jacobs to the keys. I am not familiar with Mr. Jacobs so had to Google him – he plays keys and accordion for a SF Bay Area band called Howdy! They refer to themselves as outlaw folk. Here’s a bit more on how they describe themselves on their website: “….gothic-backwoods-mountain music …shows leave the audience spellbound, sweaty and yelling for more….. self described as Americana,…. (but) actually a little more difficult to categorize – the music can run the gamut from blues, rock and traditional bluegrass inspired to Grateful Dead inspired jams…soaked in moonshine…with a little rooster claw thrown in to keep it real.” Well, then, that sounds a little exciting! And, having Carbone stay on the fiddle and adding in some keyboards really completes the stage and fills the room with high energy – making my way through the crowd I can hear little moments of joy emanating from the fans who were smart enough to get inside for PMW. And, just a mention – Chris Haugen, the guy can definitely sing!
After a 10 minute “Angeline” that flowed in and out of a banjo-jam, which was then followed by a whiskey-themed ripppin’ jam (per the set list below, just forgot to write that one down!), they close their near hour-long set with “Willie”. They invite Nat Keefe back to join them (he sat in on Rocky Top Tennessee too), you may know him from Hot Buttered Rum – a little folky, bluegrass, americana style NorthernCA band, a playing style that fits in nicely with PMW. “Willie” is one of my favorite songs off Disc 2 of their Darkside of the Moonshine package. Its upbeat, of course, that rolling banjo sound, backed by the rhythmic drums and the constant beat of the bass really makes you feel like you are rolling down the road, or riding a train, or maybe even riding a horse watching life pass by as you live life for today and tomorrow. The important things in life end up being family and friends, music, freedom, and just enough pocket change to get by. Plus, this song brings out a little more electric guitar, giving you that pull and twang, stretching that beautiful winding road feeling out for miles.
PMW was just loads of fun, as usual. A high-octane hootenanny for sure.
I stayed to catch a little bit of Railroad Earth’s first set. Why not, right? I wanted to get the full benefit of my all access pass, knowing I probably wouldn’t have the same luck for Saturday’s show. Snap away a few shots, enjoy a little more music before my night ends. The set opener for Thursday was “The Forecast”, a super danceable (well, aren’t they all), kind-of jazzy start to the evening. Rest up for the next one Hobos, high energy “Drag Him Down” definitely highlights the mandolin and banjo pickin talents of John and Andy. “Storms” gives you a chance to catch your breath, as it allows you to close your eyes and sway your hips to the feel of traveling that winding country road. Its got that easy beat, soothing and friendly just when you need it, to wash your troubles away. “Flower Between the Stones” has Tim Carbone take the microphone on lead vocals., and put down the fiddle for the electric guitar as well. This is a very country feeling song, and his guitar playing style and solid voice just fit this one like a glove.
I left the venue as they were finishing up the last song of the first set, “SevenStoryMountain”. I really like this song. Kind of how things feel sometimes, like a huge mountain in front of you, you wonder how you got there, where you’ve been, how will you climb that and survive. “It’s a seven-story mountain. It’s a long, long life we live. Got to find a light and fill my heart again…… Got to find a voice and fill my throat again.” Perfect song to fade out in the distance as I head down the stairs and out the front doors onto Geary and Fillmore back to my car. Thinking of that long ride to Sacramento, yeah, this is going to feel like a seven-story mountain!!! Eh, but who cares……. after all, sleepin’s for babies. If the tease I allowed myself on Thursday tells anything, we were in for some sheer fun headed our way on Saturday night. I definitely hit the road filled with a bunch of energy for my hour and a half ride to Sacramento, and then some. Probably could have made it to Tahoe…..
I’ve included the set list here for all three of Railroad Earth’s shows at The Fillmore, although I was not there the entire time on Thursday or at all on Friday night, with the Dead Winter Carpenters…. darn…… oh well……
The plan for Saturday night was to try to get there “early” to catch a bit of the opening act. I looked them up online as I had never heard of “Taiko Dojo” before. I learned they were a drumming troupe, that is still practicing and sharing this Japanese sacred and ancient art. From their website, “The history of Taiko is interwoven in the fabric of Japanese history. Regarded as sacred since ancient times, the drum was first used to drive away evil spirits and pests harmful to crops. It was believed that by imitating the sound of thunder, the spirit of rain would be forced into action. At harvest time, Taiko was joyfully played in thanks for a bountiful crop…… the San Francisco Taiko Dojo have redeveloped Taiko from its primitive folk art roots to a powerful, sophisticated synthesis of rhythm, harmony, and body movement. ”
Well, there must be some truth to that because it started clouding over and raining on the ride up to the City! Delays lead to missed opportunities….. Unfortunately, we entered the venue as they were finishing up. We did get to see a stage filled with a multitude of rhythmic instruments which told me they probably were the one’s that caused the rain.
To describe RRE is like driving across the country. Rolling hills, winding roads, fast railroad trains, stops in small towns, down-home cookin’, real people, and the taste of freedom in the air. There are times you might find even yourself thinking you might be in Ireland or Scotland, with the uplifting jig you find yourself kickin’ up your heals to (and if you’ve ever seen Irish dancers, you don’t move your arms too much. As a matter of fact, I’m pretty sure I saw a few people in the crowd dancing like what I was feeling….. and certainly like no one was watchin’).
And such nice fans! Oh I love the “Hobos”, so nice to make space for this short photographer when there is no “pit” to protect me. The guy to my left reminds me of Warren Haynes, to find out, yep, that’s his nick name. And, friends with the band, fellow music lover, fellow east-coaster (we always find each other, somehow….). Dude totally let me hang out and share his space, probably letting me get some shots that he wanted for himself. And then the lovely lady to my right, says there is more space to her right and I can probably see over the monitor – and she was right! See, you gotta love people who see me with my camera and don’t wait for me to beg to get in front of them for one second. And really, that’s all I need to get off a few shots.
The opener, “The Hunting Song”, about a first childhood experience fishing and hunting with your Dad, one that you won’t soon forget. I have one of those experiences, fishing when I was young and really not wanting to take the fish off the hook and begging someone else to do it for me. I felt so horrible for that fish, as he stared up at me. I swear I heard him cry….. I’m glad we were just having fun and we tossed him back to the waters to swim away and live a bit longer. This song gets a bit dark at the end, spacey and heavy, as it should. It’s describing the hunt and kill after all. Then, they let go of the darkness and the beat gets a little lighter as they start into “Right in Tune” which was right on time for taking that memory of that little fish out of my mind. “I’ve got no worries, I’ve got no doubts, cuz I know you got it all worked out……”
A big cheer from the crowd as Todd says, “Well howdy Fillmore! How y’all doin’ tonight?” and they roll smoothly into “Just So You Know”. Todd gives a well deserved shout out to John, John gives a shout back to Todd who gives a shout out to Andy on the banjo this time, who circles it back to Tim on the fiddle before heading back into the lyrics, “through deserts in the sun or mountains in the fog. Just so you know, this is gonna be the death of me”. Yeah, well if they keep this energy up for the whole night, I might have to agree! It would be a good, fun death, if death can be like that… maybe if you’re skydiving.
After a near 15 minute “Birds of America” (can I say wow, just an easy groove to this song, slow and swampy at times, jazzy and light at other moments) they start into “Mighty River”, keeping with the
theme of easy and flowing, like a might river, “washin’ clean in the mighty river, I’m over my head.” The set ends with “Spring-Heeled Jack” which, for 13+ minutes really features the rhythm of the drums and the thump of the bass, fill that in with the lightness of the mandolin and they create a very jazzy spirally twirling space to dance in. I almost thought I heard a piano and had to open my eyes to correct my ears, just as John’s mandolin soared to the sky and the lights hit the disco ball, making it look like stars on the ceiling or maybe there was no ceiling at all. I think Tim’s violin taunted a few rain drops to get through the holes that John’s mando left and douse the crowd… And then came the leprechauns. I hear that celtic sound and out of the corner of my eye see a guy dancing around just like my niece did when she performed – legs flying every which way, arms tight to the side, hopping and bopping with the lightness of the mandolin, quick with the furry of the violin, and gliding around with the swirling guitars.
The crowd, in full spirit, rained out of the venue for set break, to catch a breath of fresh air, cool off for a moment and rest up for the second set. The energy outside was palpable as people talked about the first set, what would the second set hold, and, for those in the audience on Thursday or Friday, a little banter about which show was better so far…… so far is right, the night was far from being over.
Second set opens with “Cold Water” a real hoedown of a song, and believe it or not, a Tom Waits song. Tom Waits + hoedown = ? Yeah, that’s what I thought too. Tom Waits? Wait just a minute while I look that up….. And I found my new favorite line that I have to wait a few years to use but, I will use it….. “I look 47 but I’m 24 yes I’m 24, yes I’m 24, I look 47 but I’m 24 yes I’m 24 yes I am.” Wait just a minute there Tom Waits, I will be switching that to “I look 24 but I’m 47 yes I’m 47” because I don’t plan on growing up too soon. But, in order to keep up with the energy of that song, I might need to be 24!
The second set lasted nearly an hour and a half so I’m going to pick out a few nuggets from this incredible set that drew these words from my keyboard: mind and body-blowing, dancing and glistening in your own little world, hypnotic, psychedellic background to bluegrass fore-front, unrestricted sound, utterly alive, from Celtic to honky-tonk to bluegrass to americana….. yep, that pretty much does it. My cup ran over.
My favs were, of course, the Tom Waits tune (cuz it’s Tom Waits for gosh sakes), “Jerusalem Ridge” – again with that danceable feel, wait, I thought to myself, this is a great song to skip to! Yeah, just skippin’ along, smiling at everyone cuz they are smiling at you, wishing they could hear what you are skipping to. And maybe it does have that Jerusalem/Jewish traditional eastern european folk feel to it – whatever it is, you have to dance.
What a surprise we get when they invite one Mr. Tim Flannery to the stage! If you haven’t heard the name, or you have, Mr. Flannery is the third-base coach for the San Francisco Giants who also happens to head his band, Tim Flannery & the Lunatic Fringe. He has joined the stage with the likes of Bob Weir, Jackie Greene, Jackson Browne, Garth Brooks and Jimmy Buffet, to name a few, and is about to release his eleventh album in 15 years (check ’em at www.timflannery.com). Backing Flannery, they perform one of his songs, “Hillbilly Rain,” which I understand (from talk in the crowd that night) is a new song from Flannery and his band. From the smiles that lasted ear to ear, you could tell Tim was certainly joyous to be sharing the stage with Railroad Earth and that the feeling was mutual. As Tim exits stage left, the crowd begins to chant “Let’s Go Giants” over and over with the band clapping along. As the house lights go up for just a second, Tim runs back on and then back off the stage just as something starts to brew to the far right side. I could see from a distance that a bunch of people were gathering. With the fist chord of “Dandelion Wine”, I could tell now what it was – there was a crew of happy Hobos holding huge dandelion flowers and making their way through the crowd like a dancing daisy chain. There is nothing like a little fun and games to get the crowd even more joyous than they already are – and the folks up in the balcony looking down on the crowd with childlike grins, kind of wishing they were down there too. “Spending the afternoon drinkin’ some dandelion wine…..” sounds like a good plan to me! And the dancing dandelions sure make it festive!
The energy gets just a little higher when they move from “Untitled #12” into the tempestuous and jubilant sounds of, “Like a Buddha”! Oh yeah, “Whoa-ho! There’s a feelin’ runnin’ through ya! Whoa-ho! And you’re smiling like a Buddha……” I want this song, my smile, and that Buddha feeling to last forever and ever.
The second set ends with two long songs that together make for a half hour of music. My friend taps me on the shoulder, “It is probably ending soon, let me go grab your coat and backpack so we don’t get stuck in that line.” Good idea. NOT! Before I know it, another song and another 15 minutes goes by and they haven’t gotten to the encore!
“Hard Livin’”, the last song of the second set, we hear Todd welcome Jeff Miller to the stage to sit in on guitar, and putting Andy on saxophone (sweet!). You might know Jeff from the band New Monsoon, a rock quintet out of San Francisco that puts out some pretty irresistible and inspired acoustic and electric rock-n-roll (check ’em out at www.newmonsoon.com). His guitar style fits in pretty seamlessly with this song and he and Tim, who puts down the fiddle for the guitar, are sharing the jams and sending each other higher and higher. “I’m workin’ on a new thing, workin’ on a sunday mornin’. We’re gonna be forgiven, of that hard livin’.” Little did we know it was already Sunday mornin’ when they were playing this song!
And I love Andy’s saxophone in this one. Ya know, Andy Gosseling is pretty impressive with the plethora of instruments this guy picks up throughout the night. From acoustic to banjo to dobro, flute to pennywhistle (c’mon, who plays the pennywhistle), and then saxophone… I bet he can play a mean Kazoo if offered the opportunity to do so.
Time is lost when you are inside The Fillmore and absorbing the energy from the band, the crowd, the musical history oozing from the walls. Todd’s signature voice grabs your attention and keeps you warm, Andy’s unending talent playing a multitude of instruments making that uniqueness of Railroad Earth, Tim’s entrancing violin that draws you to his energy like a snake to a flute, John’s ingenious mandolin and the way he looks around the stage almost taunting the others to feel it with him, the never-ending smile of Cary Harmon on drums – he must be reflecting what he sees on the faces in the audience, and Andrew holding down the bass, strong and danceable, you can see the music in him as he sways and dances on stage with you.
Not looking forward to the 2 hour ride home (I knew it would feel longer than the 2 hour ride to get there), I head out the doors to the cool air, grab a poster and look for my partner in crime (yay, you gotta love that the sold out shows at this venue get you a very cool poster that ya just can’t get anywhere else). We head across the street to the garage to be seriously disappointed that it is closed and, well, yup, my car is locked inside for the night. We circle the garage hoping to gain entry to at least get our leftovers (it was 1:45 and we were hungry!) but not even that lucky. The only thing left to do is to laugh it off and grab a hotel room…. of course, splashing in every rain puddle along the way like kids still reeling from a day at the amusement park. Its just what a live concert can do to ya – when the crowd and the band meet for some good fun a a playground like The Fillmore, the night’s energy makes you feel like a kid again.
A lot of driving over the past three days. Worth it? Every mile…….
Thursday, March 28
Poor Man’s Whiskey
Set: Rocky Top Tennessee*, Goodbye California, Humboldt Hoedown**, Deal***, Angeline> (Unknown.. could’ve been “Carolina Daisy”?)> Angeline, (Unknown), Willie (* w/Nat Keefe on guitar, ** w/Tim Carbone on fiddle, *** w/Tim Carbone on fiddle and Ben Jacobs on keys, (Unknown) simply means I forgot to write the name of the song down….. sorry! Anyone?)
Set 1: The Forecast> Drag Him Down, Storms, Flower Between the Stones, Potter’s Field> 1759> SevenStoryMountain
Set 2: Long Way To Go, Lordy, Lordy, ShockenawMountain Breakdown, Warhead Boogie> Black Bear, Lovin’ You, 420, Mission Man, Elko> Gold Rush, California Stars, Standing on the Corner Encore: Everything Comes Together
(Here is Friday’s set list. JBO was not able to make this night. The opening act was the Dead Winter Carpenters. Set 1: The Jupiter and the 119> Cuckoo Medley, Bird in a House, Daddy-O, Day on the Sand> Lois Ann, Mourning Flies> Lone Croft Farewell; Set 2:?Walk Beside Me> 6/8 Jam> Fisherman’s Blues*, Any Road, Old Man and the Land, Black Elk Speaks, All Alone, Head, Bowling Green, Goat, Been Down This Road? Encore: My Sister and Brothers [* w/Jenni Charles of Dead Winter Carpenters on fiddle])
Saturday, March 30
(Opening Act: Taiko Dojo)
Set 1: The Hunting Song> Right in Tune, Just So You Know, Bread and Water, Birds of America> Mighty River, Spring-Heeled Jack
Set 2: Cold Water, Saddle of the Sun, Jerusalem Ridge, Crossing the Gap, The Cuckoo, Hillbilly Rain*, Dandelion Wine> Untitled # 12, Like a Buddha> The Green Roofs of Eireanne> Where Songs Begin, Hard Livin’** Encore: On The Banks*
* w/ Tim Flannery, ** w/Jeff Miller