New Jersey-based Americana Jam Band Railroad Earth has found a second home in New York City. Their recent venue of choice has been the Best Buy Theater in Time Square. First playing there in a co-bill with Yonder Mountain String Band back in 2009, the group headlined Best Buy for the first time last year, setting higher expectations for their third show on March 9, 2013.
The clear standouts on stage were Tara Nevins on washboard, fiddle, guitar, and vocals, and Jeb Puryear on electric guitar and vocals. Nevins and Puryear are the group’s primary songwriters and their songbook has held up since 1989, when the band formed. Their eclectic style breeds a festive vibe, which is always complemented gracefully by their powerful and positive lyrics. Songs like “Funky Side” left The City That Never Sleeps with no choice but to groove along with the quintet.
By the time Railroad Earth took the stage, the audience was warmed up and ready. Loud cheers of excitement gave way to a stellar opening segue of “Black Elk Speaks” into a mouthwatering Andrew Altman led bass-driven, psychedelic instrumental entitled “Spring Heeled Jack.”
The core of the first set steered clear of the jams but Todd Sheaffer’s harmonica work during a cover of Tom Waits’ “Cold Water,” which appeared on Railroad Earth’s debut album The Black Bear Sessions, was a standout. “Cold Water” was followed by a mellow run through of “Came Up Smilin’,” and an upbeat facelift of “A Day On The Sand.” The end of the first set resembled the beginning, pushing the envelope on the fan favorite “Like A Buddha,” which began with the intro that usually precedes the song. RRE then closed the set with “Where Songs Begin,” a nod to singer-songwriter Todd Sheaffer’s former hick-pop group, From Good Homes.
Much like the first set, RRE’s second set opened and closed with segues. Set two began with a block of songs featuring Tim Carbone on electric guitar including a very hazy and explorative “The Forecast,” from the album Amen Corner. Carbone next traded his electric guitar for a violin as the “The Forecast” gave way to “River Intro Jam” which would eventually transport the musical conversation to another fan favorite, “Mighty River.” Black Swan Singer Sheryl Renee and her daughter Charlie Kay contributed vocals for a soulful and vivid rendition before breaking into another early piece of Railroad Earth’s repertoire, “Colorado.”
The intensity toned down as Tim Carbone stepped to the mic for the next song, “Flower Between the Stones,” but the inherent energy then reemerged for the rest of the set beginning with a bright take on Bill Monroe’s “The Gold Rush.”
Next up the band invited a second pair of guests to the stage, this time calling upon Donna The Buffalo's Tara Nevins and Jeb Puryear for Railroad Earth's "Just So You Know." Nevin’s washboard and Puryear’s electric guitar work fit brilliantly, bringing a Zydeco feel to the upbeat song.
The end of the second set – and the final transition of the night – began with “Birds Of America.” Arguably the strongest jam of the evening, the mood of the unrecorded Railroad Earth classic soared, sticking true to its title. The dark hazy jamming lifted to make room for the progressive bluegrass instrumental "Stillwater Getaway,” which closed out the set with outstanding picking on the guitar and mandolin from Andy Goessling and John Skehan respectively.
Those familiar with the band's hits were happy to be greeted by a sing along encore of "Bird in a House." Afterwards Renee and Kay came to the mics to bring their magic to "Peace On Earth," ending an impressive night of musical exploration on a positive note.