When I caught wind that one of my favorite musical locomotives was traveling through San Francisco on the Railroad Earth again, I knew I had to return to the rails to bear witness the sheer power of that train rolling through the sacred halls of the Fillmore. A steam engine, firing on all six cylinders, rattling the posters nearly off the foundations walls was what I envisioned; and, that is exactly what we got for three hot nights at the venue known in a past life as the Majestic Hall.
What can you say about the Fillmore that hasn’t already been said? The fact that it is THE Fillmore adds to any show a sort of mystique wrapped in curiosity and wonder and an obvious intent for a band to play better than anyone else has ever played in those hallowed halls. In a word, the Fillmore is majestic; harkening back to its old moniker before it changed to the iconically named “Fillmore Auditorium” in 1954.
I was excited for the weekend for numerous reasons. The most obvious reason being that it was three nights of freaking Railroad Earth at the Fillmore!!! I was also looking forward to my first time photographing that legendary room. I have always marveled at how the lights play off the chandeliers and I was stoked for the opportunity to make that room mine, creatively speaking.
I have recently began the transition to moving to San Francisco and the Fillmore is now my neighborhood club. After a brisk 15 minute walk, I arrived at the Fillmore on Friday about an hour before showtime to scout out the joint and find my preferred vantage points for photographing the opening band. Upon entering the venue, I instantly fell in love with Railroad Earth’s new stage backdrop made by the talented Rob Tobin. I have worked with Rob in the past and his creativity is his gift to the world and he didn’t hold back on giving with this installation. Constructed of a multitude of mirrors and two mirror balls, Rob recreated a disco version of a symbol from a a bygone era. The diagonal cross with two eyes and a roof symbolized “Safe Camp”, a place where hobos could lay their heads for a good night sleep. I giggled a bit knowing that folks would soon be having their own “safety meetings” before the lights dimmed for the opening act, The John Stickley Trio.
This threesome from North Carolina brought the heat and within seconds, they had a captive audience. Consisting of guitar, fiddle and drums, they played a breed of bluegrass, folk, and blues that would make the likes of Tony Furtado stop and listen in. The driving leads and soaring fiddle solos interlaced with wicked backbeats from the drummer were well received from the audience. A highlight of the set for me was a kick ass cover of “Slopes,” by Strength in Numbers. Not the easiest of songs to master and they played it with an almost braggadocios ease. The trio set the bar high for the rest of the night and Railroad Earth did not disappoint.
With the front of house sound dialed in just exactly perfect by Mike Partridge, Railroad Earth hit the stage running with “Long Way To Go,” an excellent choice to begin a three night run; Todd Sheaffer stretching his vocal chords on the chorus, warming them up for what turned out to be my favorite Railroad Earth show in years. The band was on point from the get go and they played favorite after favorite, reaching back in time, playing the likes of “Head,” “Bird In a House,” and “Seven Story Mountain,” all in the first set!!! These were a few of the songs that got me hooked on the band way back when. The RRE boys somehow keep it fresh with new nuances felt in the music but always played with that pinch of familiarity that prepares your body for the the band’s next move. The second set continued with perceived old school theme of the first set and we were treated to my all time favorite RRE tune, “Where Songs Begin.” This one was explored deeply and with purpose. Life. Death. Rebirth. All this was there, able to be found if you know which stone to turn over in your head. The band turned the “stone” over one more time and dropped us off at a sweet “Fisherman’s Blues,” with the first sit in of the weekend featuring Lindsay Pruett on fiddle (John Stickley Trio). The real meat of the set came later with an almighty amalgam of blistering music in the form of “Black Elk Speaks> Warhead Boogie> Birds of America> Stillwater Getaway,” with John Stickley joining the band for the “Stillwater Getaway.” It was apparent that the band put some thought into this second set; a statement of sorts was being made, but I’ll leave the speculation you to you, kind reader.
Saturday night’s opening band was, Hot Buttered Rum, longtime friends of Railroad Earth. The official band of the San Francisco Giants played like it was a Saturday night at the Fillmore and by golly, they got it right! They ripped through a few covers and originals, the band clearly having fun playing to a familiar crowd. Things started to get a little crazy with “Desert Rat,” a protest song of sorts that always gets my blood pumping and shouting at the top of my lungs. Then, Tim Carbone joined Hot Buttered Rum for, “You Be The Fiddle” and “Working Man,” with Zebulon Bowles trading red hot licks with Timmy and sharing smiles all the while I was jockeying my time between dancing, singing, and taking photos. It felt good to have that kind of release and it served as a grateful reminder of why I go out and see live music. Its for the feels; and I was getting the feels, major league big time.
You could tell after a few minutes of a break that the audience had arrived railroad ready and we could tell the band was railroad ready too when they opened the show with “Black Bear.” It seemed an odd choice as it is a slower song in the repertoire but it is also an adored song by dedicated fans. There is a gentleness to the song that cannot be described, but felt; and the crowd was feeling it alright. Everyone danced and sang in unison as group mind settled in for a trippy evening. Being true to the Fillmore’s past, as if the walls could talk through the instruments, the band played an amazing psychedelic night of music. By the end of the first set the band had us in the palm of their hand as we had ourselves a “Hangtown Ball” in honor of the band. The second set was drippy, gooey, pure psychedelia infused magic with a surprise for me, Tim Carbone singing like an angel on “Raven’s Child.” San Francisco’s Dan Lebowitz from ALO (Animal Liberation Orchestra) fame joined the band for the second half of the set culminating in an unexpected and super fun encore, “Strawberry Letter 23,” written by Shuggie Otis and made popular by The Brothers Johnson. Funk and fiddle is hard to do and they rose to the challenge. With Lebo spitting licks and Andrew Altman keeping it all together, this was a perfect send off into the Saturday night world of San Francisco.
They say never miss a Sunday show and they are right. Another San Francisco Bay Area band, Poor Man’s Whiskey, who JBO has covered in the past, began the evenings festivities. The band/crowd connection was so strong, it was palpable. San Francisco loves its Whiskey! While personally I’m not too familiar with PMW, they sure won me over with their concise playing and the playful interplay on the stage. You could tell they were doing it for nothing more than the sheer joy of playing music in a room they have filled on their own in the past.
Like a trusty locomotive, the train entered the Fillmore station via the Railroad Earth on time and with a toot of its horn. That toot began yet another amazing set by a diverse band that knows how to keep an audience captivated, night after night after night. The first half of the first set was a total dance fest. Song after song played with fast tempos and uplifting lyrics reminded us of why some consider seeing live music as going to church. Well it was a Sunday and the sermon was powerful and moving. Moving our feet, our hips, our hands and heads. As the set progressed it mellowed out a bit and we were treated to some of the most beautiful and chilling words penned by the band with, “When Mourning Flies.”
As it goes with a three night run and a day job, I reluctantly bailed the show and headed home to get some rest for the work week ahead. I was aware that it was Tour Manager and “band Dad” Papa Phil’s 70th birthday in a few days, and the band had a surprise up their sleeve for him. It turns out, his daughter surprised him with a cake and some kind words. Phil then led the band in a first time bust out of “City Of New Orleans,” with Papa Phil himself on vocals! I can only imagine his wonderful wife smiling at her lover from the merch booth. Railroad ready for many more years together as a band and as a family. Thats the magic of Railroad Earth.
The Fillmore, San Francisco
Friday, January 27, 2017
Long Way To Go, Head, Lordy, Lordy, Bird in a House, Dover To Dunkirk, Cold Water, Farewell to Isinglass> Seven Story Mountain
Where Songs Begin> Fisherman’s Blues, Walk Beside Me, When the Sun Gets in Your Blood, Shockenaw Mountain, Breakdown, Happy Song, Black Elk Speaks> Warhead Boogie> Birds of America> Stillwater Getaway, Addin’ My Voice
Encore: The Jupiter and the 119> Give That Boy A Hand
Saturday, January 28, 2017
Black Bear> Like A Buddha> Cuckoo Medley, Lovin’ You, Old Man and The Land, Bread And Water, Luxury Liner, Hangtown Ball
Monkey, Grandfather Mountain> Raven’s Child, Right in Tune> 1759> Goat, Blazin’ a Trail, Elko, Way Of The Buffalo, Face with a Hole
Encore: Strawberry Letter 23
Sunday, January 29, 2017
Been Down This Road, Drag Him Down, Dance Around Molly> Dandelion Wine, Came Up Smilin’, Only by the Light, Any Road, Mourning Flies, 12 Wolves
420, Just So You Know, Bringin’ My Baby Back Home, Won’t You Come and Sing For Me, Hard Livin’, Happy Birthday Papa Phil, City of New Orleans, Potter’s Field> Lone Croft Farewell, ‘Neath The Stars, Chasin’ a Rainbow, Crossing The Gap, The Forecast> The Berkeley Flash> Mighty River