1026 Spring Garden St.
Philadelphia, PA, 19123
Doors 7:00 PM / Show 8:00 PM
This event is all ages
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?”
“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!”
Since 2007, American Babies has been the mouthpiece for Philadelphia based musician Tom Hamilton. After spending the early 2000s building a national fan base fronting the electro-rock band Brothers Past, releasing two critically acclaimed albums, and averaging 150 shows a year, a change was in order. "Musically, I wanted to get back to the basics" he explains, "Get the song right, first. Then worry about the live show and how the music opens up from there."
Hamilton went back to his roots, rediscovering the Outlaw Country, Motown, and Grateful Dead records he grew up with, and assembled a pool of musicians to pull from for recording sessions and live performances. After two full-length LPs, an EP, and three years of touring, the American Babies are hitting their stride. The live band has been solidified with David Butler (Lee "Scratch" Perry) on drums, Adam Flicker (The Brakes) on keys, and Nick Bockrath (Nico's Gun) on bass. The band has shared the bill with numerous like minded acts such as Derek Trucks, Sheryl Crow, Umphrey's McGee, Railroad Earth, and The National to name a few.
Hamilton entered a Philadelphia studio in January of 2013 to start work on what has become the Babies' third long-player "Knives and Teeth" (via The Royal Potato Family). When asked to describe his new record, his answer is short and compact but, like his lyrics, is loaded with deeper meaning: "It's a 40-minute existential meltdown."
"When you're in your 20's," he says, "you worry or focus on things that don't seem to maintain their importance as you get older. Chicks, partying, finding a place. Shit, all of my albums back then were about girls, in one way or another. Then you grow up and you realize none of it actually matters, so you dig deeper. I spent a lot of time with some activist friends and the Occupy movement. That pushed some buttons but, I kept digging. Then I had a couple of close friends pass away within a few months of each other and that made me really dig in. I started to think about my own mortality. Reconsidering what was really important to me."
Throughout the course of the album, from the Lou Reed-inspired "This Thing Ain't Going Nowheres" to the inspired punk energy of "Bullseye Blues" to the head-shaking acceptance of "Goddamn," Knives & Teeth speaks of fragility, cruelty, frustration, and the search for what makes a life worth living.
Tom and company will be taking American Babies' re-energized live show back to the road this fall, and all through 2014.