February in the Railroad Earth
One of the more interesting musical ensembles currently plying their trade will be returning to Park City this Saturday for a show at the Eccles Center. Its name always takes me back to other times and other places, beginning with the short-lived Kennedy administration and the Georgia-Alabama line.
It would be much later when I first came across the name "Railroad Earth" as a moniker for a band, however, way after my Army buddy first lent me his copy of the spoken-word jazz-piano LP "Poetry for the Beat Generation," with Jack Kerouac reciting, among other gems, the opening rhythmic phrases of "October in the Railroad Earth" to late-night TV icon Steve Allen’s spot-on and laid-back keyboard riffs.
Residual by-products of early ’60s coal-fired Ft. Benning barracks furnaces would settle upon any and all surfaces in the horizontal plane back then, and that included vinyl records, so you’d have to blow them back into space to settle elsewhere before applying the needle to the groove. To forego this step would usually cause audio effects of a somewhat disconcerting nature.
Our unstructured platoon of hipsters would gather in clandestine off-duty listening rooms with portable phonographs and the not-very-noxious herb of the day to listen to Bird and Miles and Monk and other practitioners of the art form who showed up now and then in "On the Road" and "Dharma Bums" and subsequent Kerouac works.
"October in the Railroad Earth" always stuck to my aesthetic ribs not only because of Kerouac’s "spontaneous bop prosody" but because of the obvious and hilarious class distinctions he painted as the San Francisco neck-tied commuters passed by "the poor grime-bemarked Third Street of lost bums" with "not even enough time to be disdainful."
Over the years, sitting at many keyboards, I’ve overused many quotes from Raymond Chandler and Henry Miller and Kerouac and Bukowski and Ed Abbey and Hunter S. Thompson and the like, but none as often as I’ve borrowed and used in context my all-time favorite Kerouac snippet, "not even enough time to be disdainful."
In fact, that quote would come to mind right out of the chute whenever I read about the hotshot, virtuoso-rich, "beyond category" musical ensemble named Railroad Earth in one of the now yellowed music rags I used to collect as much for the prose style as to keep current on the live music and recording scenes. (I stole "beyond category" from Duke Ellington).
If memory serves (yeah, right!), my introduction to them in person transpired out at "ParkWest" not that many years ago when Brian Richards and Mountaintown Music brought them to town for a show on their stage down in the plaza prior to the entire venue shifting to the hillside.
The ever-so-neighborly impresario even invited us into the greenroom of brews and snacks and pickers and grinners, probably because I had written a column similar to this or maybe just because we were both music-obsessives on the lam from the mainstream.
My next chance to catch their chops live came at Deer Valley a spell back, when Railroad Earth both opened for and played along with Bruce Hornsby during his set as part of a Park City Institute show at the Snow Park Amphitheater. As with the time previous, they had me up shufflin’ my feet, boppin’ my head, working available space and generally diggin’ their vibe all evening long.
In deference to Mr. Ellington and the band’s obviously eclectic musical soul, no attempt will be made in this particular space-time to pigeonhole their shtick. Suffice to say, when not improvising on one of their own originally concocted themes, they draw upon a wide variety of sources and styles and attitudes.
I may have referred to them as a quite-hip and accomplished acoustic jam-band in a previous piece but, in atonement, I shall immediately set about unearthing and destroying any such copies that have escaped the collective compost of good taste. Music writers, notwithstanding Scott Iwasaki, are a dreadful lot, to be sure!
I try to approach their shows with dancing shoes and an open mind. Constantly in flux, whatever portion of their menu Railroad Earth brings to our table this weekend, our appetites for instrumental virtuosity and rousing vocals will no doubt be satisfied. I plan on gorging myself!
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and has been an observer, participant, and chronicler of the Park City and Wasatch County social scenes for more than 40 years.
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