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Railroad Earth breathes inspired life into Meijer Gardens

By funneling Jerry Garcia's passion, Bob Dylan’s spoken word grizzle, Neil Young's clarity, and George Harrison’s innocence into his own songs, Railroad Earth frontman Todd Sheaffer earned his spot among the greatest rock'n'roll troubadours.
Todd Sheaffer performs with Railroad Earth

Todd Sheaffer performs with Railroad Earth /Brian Manitz

Yonder Mountain String Band mini review

For all the greatness that was Railroad Earth, there was still another excellent band to follow them - Yonder Mountain String Band. The crowd that stuck around through intermittent rain were rewarded handsomely with a boot-stompin dance party from Yonder. Special guest Allie Kral nearly made up for the fact that Yonder was without their former frontman and Mandolinist, Jeff Austin. Kral's hot fiddling inspired some of the biggest roars of the evening. 

Throughout the night, members of Yonder kept referencing the beauty and psychedelia of Meijer Gardens, which inspired them to perform a sweeping bluegrass rendition of Pink Floyd's "Dogs." The depth created from all the stringed instruments during the powerful Floyd moments was nothing short of magical.

Yonder Mountain String Band is nothing to shake a stick at, with or without Jeff Austin.

Andy Goessling plays two saxophones simultaneously.

Andy Goessling plays two saxophones simultaneously. /Brian Manitz

Tim Carbone playing the fiddle

Tim Carbone playing the fiddle /Brian Manitz

A crisp gust of wind shakes the Meijer Gardens trees with applause as the Americana inspired Railroad Earth, affectionately known as “Railroad” among fans, takes the stage; the first act in a co-headlining performance with Yonder Mountain String Band.

Wasting no time or breath, the quintet jumps into their opener, “Everything Comes Together.” The song’s punchy drum beat, see-sawing bluegrass bassline and crying fiddle melody set the mood for singer-songwriter Todd Sheaffer’s powerful coming-of-age lyrics:

“We’ve been down here before /where it’s dark and it’s cold and you’re lost/just bangin’ on through the weather,” sings Sheaffer, slowly and tenderly. “Oh that smile on his face/and it all falls into place/and with ease/light as a feather…ain’t it sweet/when everything comes together?”

Railroad seamlessly transitions into one of their instrumental bluegrass tunes,”420 Hornpipe.” With a mandolin-fiddle harmony holding the melody, this merry-go-round of a song features solos from fiddle-wielding Tim Carbone, mandolinist John Skehan, multi-instrumentalist Andy Goessling on banjo, and Sheaffer on acoustic guitar.

“Great to be in Michigan, good to see you all,” says Sheaffer after the first two songs.“We got to spend the day here at these beautiful gardens. It was quite a treat.”

Sheaffer’s voice, whether singing or just talking to the crowd, is the most soulful, soothing voice the jam scene has been blessed with since Jerry Garcia in his 70's heyday; it is one of the biggest reasons Railroad has earned such a dedicated following of "hobos," as his fans are called.

By funneling Garcia's passion, Bob Dylan’s spoken word grizzle, Tom Petty’s nasality and George Harrison’s heartfelt innocence into his own sun-splashed songs, Sheaffer has earned his spot among the greatest rock'n'roll troubadours of all time. He is a great storm of a songwriter and guitarist, creating meaningful, moving songs out of nearly anything: trains of the transcontinental railroad, the day to day of a black bear, dandelion wine, abstract feelings of happiness or forgiveness, a river, an old man settling on a plot of land and the list goes on. Another driving force behind the loyal hobos is the sheer wizardry of the cast of musicians surrounding Sheaffer.

The rhythm section – Carey Harmon on drums and Andrew Altman on upright and electric bass – consistently holds down the groove so the rest of the band can shine. Carbone, in addition to playing the fiddle like happily possessed marionette doll, also plays electric guitar on the band’s more rock-infused songs. Skehan occasionally switches from his mandolin to piano and a bouzouki. The most impressive cast member, though, is Goessling. The list of the instruments he plays skillfully is a long one: acoustic guitar, banjo, dobro, mandolin, lap steel, flute, pennywhistle and saxophones. 

“We’re going to play a happy song [now]. In fact, this one is called The Happy Song.’ That’s how happy this one is – it’s the happiest song we have,” says Sheaffer in an amusing deadpan tone. “This was inspired by my sister’s wedding day, which was, you guessed it, a very happy day.”

As promised, Sheaffer delivered some down home, sincerely happy lyrics over a ripping banjo and screaming fiddle:

“There’s nothing better in the world than to see my sister dancin’/See my Daddy proud and hear my Mama laughin’/Happy as a family, happy hand in hand/Happy as a family singing/Happy as a banjo, happy yes I am/Happy as a banjo ringing.”

The tone continued with “Came Up Smilin’,” a blissful, slowed down tune about a boy who took a dive off a cliff and did as the song suggests. This piece is a great instance of Sheaffer capturing the seemingly mundane and turning it into something elegant and powerful.

Railroad’s country-rock rendition of the Robert Earl Keen “For Love” follows, shifting the mood of the show to a gloomier place as ominous clouds gathered over the amphitheater.

“Saw a man in San Antone shoot down a dancing queen,” sings Sheaffer. “Asked him on his hangin' day what was he thinkin' of/He said ‘I never liked the way she treated me so mean/In the end, I tell you friend, I did it all for love.’”

“Hangtown Ball,” a historically inspired song about a Gold Rush town famous for its hangings, is next. Afterward, someone in the crowd shouts, “play a happier song,” apparently a little depressed by the last two songs. As if they heard, Railroad starts into “Donkey for Sale,” a fun, swinging tune which features Goessling playing two saxophones simultaneously, one with each hand.

Instrumental track “Cukoo Medley” and driving rock song “Monkey” follow, before giving way to one of Railroad’s most uplifting and transcendant songs, “Like A Buddha.” Over a thumping drumbeat, and echoing acoustic guitar, Goessling takes over the stage with a beautiful, soaring flute solo before Sheaffer starts singing words of inspiration that cascade over jumping fiddle notes by Carbone:

"Oh, while you have the eyes…take the time to look around/oh, while you have the ears…take the time to hear the sounds…And then you’re seeing in a light you didn’t know was glowin’/and your walkin’ in a stream you didn’t know was flowin’/every beat of your heart, open, love is formin’/oh! and there’s a feeling runnin’ through ya /oh! and then you’re smilin’ like a Buddha."

“It’s a pleasure being here with you in this beautiful place with these beautiful gardens,” says Sheaffer as the band segues into the final song, “Seven Story Mountain.” The song builds progressively over the tribal thump of the drums, a motoring mandolin and a heavenly Carbone fiddle riff, climaxing together as Sheaffer drives the final message home:

It's a seven-story mountain/It's a long, long life we live/Got to find a light and fill my heart again/It's a seven-story mountain/It's a long, long life ahead/Got to find a voice and fill my throat again.”

For more photos from the night, visit here.

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