Railroad Earth: Winter Tour 2017

11:11 Presents

Railroad Earth: Winter Tour 2017

Pert Near Sandstone

Thu, February 23, 2017

Doors: 7:00 pm / Show: 8:00 pm

Pub Station Ballroom

Billings, MT

$25.00 - $28.00

This event is all ages

Railroad Earth: Winter Tour 2017
Railroad Earth: Winter Tour 2017
There's a great scene in The Last Waltz – the documentary about The Band's final concert – where director Martin Scorsese is discussing music with drummer/singer/mandolin player Levon Helm. Helm says, "If it mixes with rhythm, and if it dances, then you've got a great combination of all those different kinds of music: country, bluegrass, blues music, show music…" To which Scorsese, the inquisitive interviewer, asks, "What's it called, then?"
Helm replies, "Rock & roll!" Clearly looking for a more specific answer, but realizing that he isn't going to get one, Marty laughs. "Rock & roll…"

Well, that's the way it is sometimes: musicians play music, and don't necessarily worry about where it gets filed. It's the writers, record labels, managers, etc., who tend to fret about what "kind" of music it is.

And like The Band, the members of Railroad Earth aren't losing sleep about what "kind" of music they play – they just play it. When they started out in 2001, they were a bunch of guys interested in playing acoustic instruments together. As Railroad Earth violin/vocalist Tim Carbone recalls, "All of us had been playing in various projects for years, and many of us had played together in different projects. But this time, we found ourselves all available at the same time."

Songwriter/lead vocalist Todd Sheaffer continues, "When we started, we only loosely had the idea of getting together and playing some music. It started that informally; just getting together and doing some picking and playing. Over a couple of month period, we started working on some original songs, as well as playing some covers that we thought would be fun to play." Shortly thereafter, they took five songs from their budding repertoire into a studio and knocked out a demo in just two days. Their soon-to-be manager sent that demo to a few festivals, and – to the band's surprise – they were booked at the prestigious Telluride Bluegrass Festival before they'd even played their first gig. This prompted them to quickly go in and record five more songs; the ten combined tracks of which made up their debut album, "The Black Bear Sessions."

That was the beginning of Railroad Earth's journey: since those early days, they've gone on to release five more critically acclaimed studio albums and one hugely popular live one called, "Elko." They've also amassed a huge and loyal fanbase who turn up to support them in every corner of the country, and often take advantage of the band's liberal taping and photo policy. But Railroad Earth bristle at the notion of being lumped into any one "scene." Not out of animosity for any other artists: it's just that they don't find the labels very useful. As Carbone points out, "We use unique acoustic instrumentation, but we're definitely not a bluegrass or country band, which sometimes leaves music writers confused as to how to categorize us. We're essentially playing rock on acoustic instruments."

Ultimately, Railroad Earth's music is driven by the remarkable songs of front-man, Todd Sheaffer, and is delivered with seamless arrangements and superb musicianship courtesy of all six band members. As mandolin/bouzouki player John Skehan points out, "Our M.O. has always been that we can improvise all day long, but we only do it in service to the song. There are a lot of songs that, when we play them live, we adhere to the arrangement from the record. And other songs, in the nature and the spirit of the song, everyone knows we can kind of take flight on them." Sheaffer continues: "The songs are our focus, our focal point; it all starts right there. Anything else just comments on the songs and gives them color. Some songs are more open than others. They 'want' to be approached that way – where we can explore and trade musical ideas and open them up to different territories. But sometimes it is what the song is about."

So: they can jam with the best of them and they have some bluegrass influences, but they use drums and amplifiers (somewhat taboo in the bluegrass world). What kind of music is it then? Mandolin/vocalist John Skehan offers this semi-descriptive term: "I always describe it as a string band, but an amplified string band with drums." Tim Carbone takes a swing: "We're a Country & Eastern band! " Todd Sheaffer offers "A souped-up string band? I don't know. I'm not good at this." Or, as a great drummer/singer/mandolin player with an appreciation for Americana once said: "Rock & roll!"
Pert Near Sandstone
Pert Near Sandstone
It was roughly a decade ago that Pert Near Sandstone first gathered around a microphone in a Minneapolis basement to record their debut album, 'Up And Down The River.' So much has happened since then: highs and lows, personal struggles and artistic triumphs, new faces and new sounds. The winding road they've traveled over the years makes it all the more meaningful for the band to come full circle on their dazzling new release, 'Discovery Of Honey,' which finds them once again recording in a basement and reuniting with founding member Ryan Young, who's spent the past seven years touring the world playing fiddle with bluegrass stars Trampled By Turtles.

"Besides playing with us, Ryan was also our first recording engineer back when we were just starting out," says mandolin/fiddle player Nate Sipe. "Working with him again on the new album, we were able to recapture that feeling of lightning in a bottle from the early days."

"We all learned how to do this together," adds banjo player Kevin Kniebel. "We have more tools in our kit now and we've evolved as musicians and songwriters, but what hasn't changed is the chemistry between us."

That chemistry has been abundantly clear from the very first days of Pert Near Sandstone, when the band—whose current lineup features Sipe and Kniebel, founding guitarist J Lenz, bassist Justin Bruhn, and clog & fiddle player Matt Cartier—burst onto the American roots music scene in a flurry of fiddling, picking, and stomping. They followed their debut record with a string of four critically acclaimed albums that had No Depression hailing them as "stellar" and The Minneapolis Star Tribune praising their songs as "masterfully and jubilantly plucked." NPR's Mountain Stage celebrated the band's "Midwestern stamp on Appalachian [sounds]," while The Current described their live performances as "a frenzied string shredding spree that takes audiences under its spell."

The band earned performances everywhere from the prestigious Telluride Bluegrass Festival to A Prairie Home Companion, and shared bills on the road with the likes of Trampled By Turtles, Del McCoury, and Yonder Mountain String Band. As their reputation grew, they cemented their status as linchpins of the Midwestern scene by founding their very own festival, Blue Ox, which has featured performances by Bela Fleck, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Shovels & Rope, Justin Townes Earle, Blitzen Trapper, and more.

"People get really wrapped up in genre and labeling," explains Kniebel, "but Blue Ox allows us to showcase all these different aspects of roots and American music that are really important to us and to the fabric of folk music today."

"Whether you have drums and an electric guitar or a jug and a fiddle, it's all part of the same voice," adds Sipe. "It's a blessing to be able to present a festival that can incorporate all of those elements."

That same voracious musical appetite and disregard for the strictures of genre and tradition fuel much the music on 'Discovery Of Honey,' which finds the band setting their sights higher than ever before and pushing the complexity of their songwriting and the sheer energy of their performances to remarkable new peaks. With Young back in the fold recording and co-producing, the band gathered just outside of Minneapolis at their old friend's new home—which had originally been constructed by an end-times prepper to withstand a nuclear apocalypse—for the recording sessions.

"There's a huge ham radio tower in the back and catacombs of rooms with storage for cans and everything," explains Sipe. "The two-foot-thick concrete walls of the bomb shelter had a 1-inch iron plate in the middle, and when they were wiring up the house, the electrician couldn't even get through it at first."

It proved to be the perfect mix of seclusion and comfort, with the basement serving as both a familiar setting and an ideal place for Pert Near Sandstone to unleash their explosion of string band energy and excitement. Sitting in a circle and performing live together, they knocked out basic tracking for the album in just two-and-a-half days. Over the following weeks, they'd revisit the songs individually, cutting vocals and solos and experimenting with layering up additional sounds to flesh out the rich, acoustic orchestration.

The album kicks off with the stately "Bloom Again," a Kniebel-penned track about the fragility and beauty of love. Propelled by clawhammer banjo and tremolo mandolin, the track features rich, triumphant harmonies and rides on a wave of ethereal organ swells, showing off the folkier side of the band's personality. They follow it up with a trip to the opposite end of the spectrum on the rollicking, rag-time, jugband-inspired "Nothing I Can Do," from which the album draws its title.

"'Discovery Of Honey' really encapsulated the overall theme of the record," says Sipe. "A lot of the songs are about finding a new fertile ground, about approaching love for the first time again."

Indeed, several of the tracks (including Kniebel's "Uncover Me" and Sipe's "Again And Again") look at old love in new ways, but the album covers a broad spectrum, both musically and thematically. "Rattlesnake" is a breakneck fiddle-tune inspired by Sipe's relocation to southern California and his forays into the desert, while the toe-tapping "Bay Road" came to him during a solo retreat to a family cabin in central Minnesota, and "Don't Need You" is a fingerstyle blues written by Lenz in the tradition of Charlie Parr or Spider John Koerner. In addition, Bruhn contributed his first writing credits on the album with "Animal Instinct" and "Biting My Nails," an unplanned recording that found the band pushing themselves to experiment with detuning their instruments and layering on unexpected sounds like pedal steel guitar.

That musical fearlessness is part of what makes the group so difficult to pin down and also such perfect stewards for string band music in the 21st century. The sweetest honey awaits those brave enough to risk being stung, and the band reaps the rewards of their musical courage here in spades. 'Discovery Of Honey' is Pert Near Sandstone's finest work to date, and that's buzz you can believe in.
Venue Information:
Pub Station Ballroom
2502 1st Ave. N
Billings, MT, 59101
http://www.thepubstation.com/