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Wednesday, 13 September 2006 00:00

Newgrass with strong roots

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It seems that in the realm of jam-oriented “newgrass” music, there are very clear lines between the things that work and those things that don’t.

Extended improvisations are fine, but they have to be grounded in actual songs, not mere canvases on which to scribble aimlessly. It’s great to have a variety of instruments at your disposal, but not as a novelty — that banjo player had better be able to flat-out pick. The same goes for anybody holding a mandolin, Dobro or violin.

But most of all, the band needs a musical personality of its very own, lest it be reduced to a mere parody of its influences.

Elko, the double live CD Railroad Earth released in January of this year, makes a clear statement of the group’s awareness of these rules. Though it’s easy to hear their love of the more Garcia colored approach to this music, there’s also some Neil Young floating in the vocals and songwriting. Dig further, and you might hear some of the majestic leanings found in the Dixie Dregs’ more traditional work, and newgrass super-group Strength In Numbers in the coherent improvisation and group interplay.

Named for the small California/Nevada border town the band stops in to blow off steam, Elko ebbs and flows just like a good live show should, consistent and seamless, though the performances are culled from three cities’ worth of gigs.

With a clean and spacious mix, none of the little things are lost: the sparkling vocal harmonies of “Mighty River” shine bright, the fiery duel between mandolin and violin in the last minutes of “Head” has all the urgency in headphones that it likely contained in the live performance, and the dark storytelling and slightly uncomfortable silences of “The Hunting Song” come across mournful as ever.

The focal point of these performances, as flowing and enjoyable as the instrumental talents are to hear, is the voice and skilled song craft of lead vocalist Todd Sheaffer. A crisp tenor with every so slightly scruffy edges, he combines the delicate warble of Garcia with a little of George Harrison’s personality and Young’s quirkiness.

Multi-instrumentalist Andy Goessling fills in every gap as needed, switching nimbly between any number of string and wind instruments at the drop of a hat. The majority of the improvisational firepower comes from the sometimes psychic melodic sparring of violinist Tim Carbone and mandolin picker John Skehan. Drummer Carey Harmon and bassist Johnny Grubb construct a flexible but unbreakable framework for everybody in the band to stomp around on.

In a sense, there’s no “weak link” in the lineup, which seems a common issue plaguing similar groups to Railroad Earth. You know what I’m talking about — the “yeah, they’re pretty good except for the (fill in the blank) player” syndrome. Not here, though.

At over two hours running time, Elko can be quite a lot to digest in one sitting, but the album is paced so well that the only real fatigue comes from your back from sitting in one place, not your ears.

Though miles apart stylistically, Elko bears a similar quality and spirit to Umphrey McGee’s excellent Safety In Numbers, at least to my ears. Both albums are snapshots of bands that draw from the jam-oriented ethic, but never do so at the expense of the song itself.

Maybe it’s the years or touring, maybe the diversity of influence, or possibly a simple respect for the actual art of making music: whatever the reason, Elko just works as an album.

Though I’ve made every effort not to fall prey to the “play on words” game with this particular band’s name, I guess I just can’t help myself: Make like a hobo and grab hold of Railroad Earth’s caboose at Asheville’s Orange Peel on Sept. 30. It’s sure to be good time watching these guys make tracks live onstage.

Yep. They’ll be “comin’ round the mountain” pretty darn soon, so make sure to hitch a ride. OK, my train vernacular is more limited than I initially thought. Sorry.

(Chris Cooper can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

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