Railroad Earth Jams Live on Two-CD 'Elko'

Rolling Stone music critic Christian Hoard reviews Elko, the new live double album by the jam band Railroad Earth. Unlike most jam bands with extended electric guitar solos, Railroad Earth is a bluegrass band — so expect extended mandolin solos, instead.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

New Jersey is not known as a hot bed of bluegrass music, so the group Railroad Earth is sort of an oddity in the Garden State. Here's music critic Christian Hoard with a review of the band's new live album "Elko."

Mr. CHRISTIAN HOARD (Music Critic, Rolling Stone): So just how many mandolin solos do you think you can sit through in one concert? If you're a fan of the New Jersey band Railroad Earth the answer is probably well, a lot. Since 2001 Railroad Earth has been playing bluegrass plus snatches of rock, folk, and jazz with the same open armed, occasionally long-winded approach that's helped jam bands like Phish and the String Cheese Incident earn throngs of rabid fans.

(Soundbite of song "Lordy, Lordy")

Mr. HOARD: That song, 'Lordy, Lordy,' comes from Railroad Earth's debut album, The Black Bear Sessions which they recorded in 2001; not long after the six well-school bluegrass veterans came together in a 200-year-old barn in western New Jersey. Since then Railroad Earth had been a consistent draw at rock clubs, theaters, and bluegrass festivals, earning a devoted following of so-called hoboes who trailed the band from town to town and trade cassettes of their live shows.

Railroad Earth's appeal comes from the fact that they're one of a handful of bands that combine virtuosic command of classic bluegrass with free-flowing jams. At their best those jams start with delicate interplay between mandolin, fiddle, base, and acoustic guitar and builds to soaring boisterous heights. Kind of like a hoedown at Haight Ashbury.

(Soundbite of song "Warhead Boogie")

Mr. HOARD: That clip comes from a song called Warhead Boogie which is featured on Railroad Earth's new live album Elko; they're ten-minute plus jams abound on Elko. The album does feature actual songs all sung in a thin draw by frontman Todd Sheaffer. Elko has some country numbers, some strip-down arguably funky grooves, and one Reggae inspired cut; but mostly Railroad Earth specialize in polite laxly tuneful songs like this one, Long Way To Go, which combines the rambling man spirit and sing along appeal of classic bluegrass and classic Greatful Dead.

(Soundbite of song "Long Way To Go")

Mr. HOARD: On the whole, the Elko album feels pretty tedious; partly because of all the jams and partly because Railroad Earth feel like a nitch band within a nitch genre. Unless you share some of Railroad Earth's devotion to roots music, Elko probably won't push your pleasure buttons. But just in case you're not sure, I'll leave you with an excerpt from a song called Head, a 16-minute showcase to Railroad Earth's backwoods (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of song "Head")

BRAND: Christian Hoard is a writer for Rolling Stone Magazine.

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