Railroad Earth will arrive in town for a night of bluegrass jams
Like the music it’s known for, Railroad Earth finds itself improvising throughout live during its past 15 years as a band, according to mandolinist and bouzouki player John Skehan.
"We got swept up in this from the beginning, not knowing what we were in for and what was going to come out of it," Skehan said during a phone call from Denver, Colorado. "We take things as they come up in whatever that’s happening. It’s a constant dance that has been parts taking the ride and catching our breath to come up with a new body of work."
Railroad Earth will return to Park City for a concert at the Eccles Center on Saturday, Feb. 20. The performance, the first time the band will be in Park City since playing with Bruce Hornsby in 2013, is presented by the Park City Institute.
The band is currently on tour in support of it’s new DVD "Live at Redrocks: August 02, 2014."
"We recorded the DVD just after the show we did with Bruce Hornsby," Skehan said. "It was nice getting to play in his sandbox for a while."
Saturday’s concert will consist of whatever the band feels like playing, Skehan said with a laugh.
"There are new pieces that pop up as we go along all the time," he said.
The group — Skehan, lead vocalist and guitarist Todd Sheaffer, violinist Tim Carbone, flutist Andy Goessling, drummer Carey Harmon and bassist Andrew Altman — will also perform some tunes from its most recent studio album, "The Last of the Outlaws."
"With that record, we returned to the MO we had when we did our first record," Skehan said. "We recorded everything live in the studio as much as we could and went for more extended improvisations and tried to capture the vibe of what we do on stage."
At the same time, the band tried to create a thoroughly composed piece that clocked in at an excess of 23 minutes.
"We went for long compositions and long concepts and tried to see where the jams stretched out," Skehan said laughing.
The album also cam about through the band’s different methods of songwriting.
"That goes a couple of different ways for us, because Todd is the principal songwriter," Skehan said. "His voice, not just his singing voice, but his voice as a songwriter has a lot to do with the tone of the band."
Many times Sheaffer will bring in a full song and the band will work on an arrangement.
"Other times he’ll come in with a sketch that is wide open to a jam or improvisation," Skehan said. "Then there are collaborative songs where Todd and I or Tim and I work together on tunes."
Still another method is creating songs from jams.
"We’ll keep playing and messing with it," Skehan said. "The title track for ‘Last of the Outlaws’ was an instrumental riff that had different time signatures and tempos, and Todd took it home and slowed it way down and came up with the songs."
In addition, the band members’ own solo projects have contributed to ideas for Railroad Earth songs.
"Everybody has pursued their own interest and vibe throughout the existence of the band," Skehan said. "It’s really just part of what we’ve all brought to Railroad Earth."
Skehan’s fascination with the mandolin stems from his admiration of bluegrass music.
"The biggest thing for me was becoming more aware of the vast, rich genre that is," he said. "I played in a rock band and attended a lot of rock concerts, so there was something about what I consider the ‘chamber-music’ ideal of a true and traditional bluegrass ensemble.
"Everyone plays acoustic instruments and the musicians rely on each of their own roles and tones within the five-piece band," Skehan said. "Also, bluegrass comes right out to the soil of the American music experience. It’s primitive, but also sophisticated in terms of the players."
Skehan also liked the fact that he couldn’t hide behind a wall of effects.
"You’re not plugged into anything," he said. "It’s just your fingers and hands."
Skehan found his way to the bouzouki through traditional Irish music.
"I always had interest in that type of music, although I feel like I haven’t studied enough to really do justice to the tradition," he said. "The sound of it has always fascinated me and I also like the bands that have grown out of the Irish tradition, like the Pogues, which has added a punk-rock aesthetic to it. I’ve contemplated getting a bouzouki for a long time, but then I spent a long, dark winter listening to the Pogues’ entire catalog over and over again and just decided to order one and see how it fits into Railroad Earth’s sound."
Over the past 15 years, Railroad Earth has had the opportunity to perform with other musicians in the rock and bluegrass community, including Gov’t Mule and Allman Brothers Band guitarist Warren Haynes, who asked the band to record the album "Ashes & Dust," which was released on July 24.
"We have been amazingly blessed to encounter many people along the way," Skehan said. "Some of them are our musical heroes. We shared the stage with Sam Bush and Phil Lesh, the McCourys. In fact, Ronnie McCoury is one of my mandolin heroes and he was kind enough to give me the time of day and pick with me."
Park City Institute presents Railroad Earth on Saturday, Feb. 20, at the Eccles Center for the Performing Arts, 1750 Kearns Blvd., at 7:30 p.m. The sextet has made a name for itself by constantly playing its own blend of bluegrass and Americana. Tickets range from $25 to $75 and they are available by calling the box office, 435-655-3114 or visiting EcclesCenter.org.
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