“Nothing but love songs, folks,” said Todd Scheaffer last night at Albany music theatre The Egg. Scheaffer and the rest of the formative jamgrass group Railroad Earth were having lots of fun at the capitol region venue, the first stop of their northeast run this weekend. So was Holly Bowling, the well-known pianist opening up for Earth, that also joined the band for most of their headlining performance last night. She and Railroad kicked off the run magnificently, winding through song material ready-made into a bluegrass Valentine’s Day playlist, but also putting heart into all the musical treats of the evening.
Bowling opened up with her own welcomed performance before the two main sets, as is the plan for the rest of the northeast shows. Among the most well received of her Phish and Grateful Dead piano versions was a full-stretched “Divided Sky” on which she put a lot of personal touch. Another highlight was, no doubt, the set ending of “Dark Star” > “I Know You Rider,” where Bowling invited Railroad Earth bassist Andrew Altman and mandolinist John Skehan to play.
Droning cello from Altman, soft strumming from Skehan and piano sound effects from Bowling wound through a wonderful version of the early Dead song that shifted between delicate moments and chromatic, jazzy creativity. The trio easefully guided one another into “Rider.” Holly started to really hammer on the keys and Altman played a cool standup bass solo. From this beautiful opening segment, the stage was set for the magic to be made between Bowling and Railroad Earth.
After Bowling’s set, Railroad Earth descended upon The Egg with a great opening “Hunting Song,” giving this particularly psychedelic original a bit of musical power. When Railroad starts a show off with something extra heady like this, the chances for a strong show are in the cards. Bowling, who joined the band on stage from the beginning, got her first real sounds on “Old Man and The Land,” playing a ragtime-style solo that got a beaming smile from Todd Scheaffer.
Love songs did indeed imbue much of the band’s two sets through the evening, with “Happy Song,” “For Love,” and “Came Up Smiling” following the opener, and these cheerful songs started to get the audience, from the front row to the back of The Egg, out of their seats and dancing. “Raven’s Child” > “Only By The Light” was a powerful combo that saw expert playing from Skehan and Mike Robinson. Robinson was sitting in as special guest for this entire night on banjo, guitar and pedal steel; and he deftly held his own beside Railroad Earth, standing out in multiple moments. On “Dandelion Wine,” the romance number to end the first set, the younger musician picked an incredible guitar solo that elicited not only cheers from The Egg, but a fist pump from violinist Tim Carbone.
The second set kept the welcome love theme rolling, starting with the bittersweet “Been Down This Road.” “Lovin’ You” and “Long Walk Home,” alternatively, brightened the attitude on. “Old Dangerfield” came in the middle of these as a particularly hot version, with Carbone’s fiddle soloing propelling the tune between its breakdown tempo and an Railroad-style funk beat.
The last stretch of the night received the most adventurous musical treatment from Earth and Bowling. “Goat” was standard length, perhaps even shorter than many versions, but it was a rocking version at that. The thing to note about this one was Altman’s mighty standup bass work – huge and resonating. It sounded like a giant tap dancing on the roof of The Egg. Following on his and the drummer’s sturdy backbeat, the rest of the band ditched the song proper for a dynamic, colorful jam, and Bowling and Robinson were both well footed within the fray. “Jupiter and The 119” took this energy and ran away with it, for a very special version of this Railroad classic. The band showed their fearlessness in furrowing through an uptempo jam segue, and made a seamless and uplifting transition into “Butterfly and The Tree.” The playing from everybody on stage was a thing of progressive bluegrass beauty.
While the band soared from the one song to the next, there was one particular moment in which Bowling and Skehan’s soloing linked up, and the two complimented one another musically much in the way they had in the opening Dark Star segment, only this time at a breezy speed. If anything best presented how well Bowling fit into Earth’s melodically dramatic and unpredictable style, it was here.
Many fans are understandably buzzing about the night’s encore as much as anything else in the show. “Said What You Mean” is definitely on the rarer side of Railroad Earth originals, having been performed only twice over the last two years. A song that sounds like it could have been co-written between Sam Bush and The Band (but it’s all Scheaffer, a genius in his own right), this was maybe the best loved hit of the night.