The pantheon of New Jersey music legends is pretty well established with stars like Sinatra and Springsteen, but slowly making their way into the discussion is a band that hails from Stillwater Township in Sussex County and has a style all its own. On Saturday, Railroad Earth delivered a full serving of their popular brand of rootsy Americana rock to an eager audience at everyone’s favorite Manhattan movie theater turned upscale music venue, Best Buy Theater. With a dance floor packed full of the group’s faithful following and an energy only the Big Apple can produce, the band treated everyone to two full sets of music and an encore that put their craftsmanship and versatility on full display.
The Garden State troubadours sauntered onstage shortly after 9:00 pm and kicked things off with ‘Saddle of the Sun’, a selection from the group’s second album Bird in a House. This song and the ‘Chasin’ a Rainbow’ which followed saw Railroad Earth in its default setting, so to speak, with acoustic guitar, mandolin, fiddle and upright bass all up front and center. This combination seemed to give the music its deepest and fullest sound of the night which allowed the band to maneuver in a lot of different directions all night. Bassist Andrew Altman then switched over to an electric bass which still kept the rhythm, but certainly gave it a little bit more rock and roll feel on songs like ‘Lovin’ You’ and ‘Hunting Song’; the latter saw instrumentalist extraordinaire Andy Goessling join Todd Sheaffer on acoustic guitar. This middle portion of the first set featured intricate interplay between band members but also seemed to temper some of the high energy that was present early on. This was fixed with a fine version of ‘Crossing the Gap’ which gave a nod to the band’s home state and “crossing the river from the Jersey side”. For set closer, the band treated everyone to a stellar version of ‘Head’ which was highlighted by phenomenal solos and interplay between John Skehan on mandolin and fiddle master Tim Carbone. By the end of this classic hit, the entire dance floor was dancing and screaming along in harmony with the refrain before things came to a momentary end.
After a first set that both started and ended strong, hopes were high that the second set would continue to trend in the right direction. ‘Long Way to Go’ kicked things off and got people on the floor moving again slowly but surely. As the set progressed, Railroad Earth continued to prove that it can create its signature sound in a variety of different instrument combinations. Skehan moved over to an electric piano for a beautiful harmony driven song called ‘Grandfather Mountain’. His delicate work on keys worked as great backdrop and extra layer of sound on this soulful number. Not to be outdone, Goessling then picked up not one but two saxophones for ‘Hard Livin’’ which followed and also featured Skehan on banjo and Tim Carbone on electric guitar. This was truly an impressive musical display as the instruments continued to rotate, but the rootsy signature sound of the band never wavered. A side effect of all the switching, unfortunately, was that the second set didn’t seem to have a lot of flow between songs and with the exception of a thirteen minute plus ‘Warhead Boogie’, no songs were really explored or stretched out beyond their normal boundaries. ‘Dandelion Wine’ served as the set closer this evening before a two song encore featuring ‘Elko’, the namesake of perhaps the band’s most iconic album, sent everyone home and back outside to the reality of winter.
For a few hours, however, Best Buy Theater was anything but frigid as Railroad Earth and their trademark hybrid of roots rock and bluegrass warmed up a room full of devoted followers and new fans. No matter what combination of instruments or band personnel that’s used, they continue to churn out songs that seem to genuinely come from the heart which makes for a fun and easy listen. As they continue to hone their sound and perfect their craft, there’s no telling where this band will fall in the esteemed line of Garden State musical exports.