The environment; the space you are in externally and between your ears can make music magical. It can also make music sad, stressful, angry and every other emotion you can conjure up. But that is what always brings me back to the feeling of magic. It’s like a smell. There are certain smells that take you places. A faint perfume as you walk down a busy street can transport you back to summer camp and a first love. The smell of pumpkin pie cooking may make you sick to your stomach as you think back to second grade when your class made this delectable treat and you went home to throw up all night. But music strikes a more abstract place in your subconscious. It hunts out all of the feelings you have associated with whatever that music is making you feel right then. It is instantaneous in its effect, yet lifelong in its reassurance. While this emotional connection with music is always present, it is not always consciously evident. With a band like Railroad Earth, not only is the dual environment creating a link to your emotional history; but the band’s music, in its entirety, asks you to be in the moment and recognize what is happening all around you and within you as well. It is musical meditation.
My environment was bountiful in an external sense last Saturday night, long before we made our way to the comfortable confines of South Burlington’s Higher Ground. You see, this night was planned. Of course, most musical journeys start with some sort of plan, but for Laura and me, that plan is usually in isolation. We make our plan to our own beat because we are often the only people on that rhythm. We see friends at shows, but that is the result of a lucky overlap of rhythms falling into step at just the right time. But, this night was planned. It was hatched over the high we all felt when we ran into each other at last week’s Lake Placid Bluegrass Jam and one friend mentioned a trip to Vermont the next weekend to check out RRE’s post Halloween show. I was intrigued, especially because our young children make a musical experience on Halloween nearly impossible. We all went our separate ways a week before the expected RRE concert and, of course, this is usually where a tale like this ends. The high of one experience wears off and someone backs out. Someone doesn’t get tickets. Someone forgets to check their email. But the week went on, low and behold, Saturday night we piled into our car for a bumpy ferry ride across Lake Champlain and a few pre-show stops for beer and falafel before getting to the Higher Ground in time to enjoy one more drink before the lights went down. Everything that was supposed to happen had happened.
When the stage lights came up, the journey stopped. Or perhaps it started, but only to allow me to recognize where I was. It seems that many of the bands that I currently see live have an anticipatory model to their music. While what I am hearing in the moment is often performed with expertise and bravado, it always feels like a step on the path towards something else. Whether that’s a dynamic rhythm change, a chord change that will change the mood of the sound or even another player’s solo; so much of the music being created in front of me feeds on our cultural desire to move on to what is next. Here, Railroad Earth seems to be moving, or perhaps sitting, against the grain. Opening with “When the Sun Gets in Your Blood” brought up visions of warm, lackadaisical days, a counter intuitive thought as we prepare to shorten our days and face the realities of a harsh winter. The imagery was not just to connect the listeners with the days of summer past, but to infect us with this feeling of lengthy, space filled days that could be filled with nothing at all. This was where RRE wanted our heads to be as we approached the first show after a Halloween blowout.
I have never had less fun at a Phish show then I did on the third night at SPAC a few years ago. The band had given their collective all the previous two night and on this last night at their adopted home venue, despite a set list that looks great on paper, the band just couldn’t muster the energy to do anything more than go through the motions. This was my fear going into the Railroad Earth show on November 1. It was the night after Halloween: a show where traditionally bands and the crowd explored the dark corners of where the music could take them, working hard to expose light to musical paths that rarely see the light of day. It is when a band comes off such a high that fans can only assume that their energy will be lower. Compound that with the festival that RRE had played the weekend before on the West Coast, again with a Halloween theme, and one could assume that all they could do would be to show up and hope to make it through the show without falling down.
But on this Day of the Dead, Railroad Earth was anything but (or were they- a theme we’ll get back to later. What a tease, right?). Yes, the energy was more subdued, but that is, in part, what separates RRE from the other bands lumped under the jamband moniker. Next up, when the band played “Happy Song” and “Been Down this Road” the musical and lyrical symbolism was deep. This is not a band that lacks experience. They have come off highs and had a crowd that expected them to stay there for the next paying experience. Tonight, the band was letting us know that the approach wouldn’t be fast paced, but who goes to an RRE show for that anyway? As the song said, “I know how this story goes.” And then the set took a turn. They had been playing older songs, but when RRE took a crack at “Mountain Time”, a song I have heard them play for over a decade, the rearranged chart took it to a new and sanguine place, albeit slower and more intentional. The expected riffs were more highlighted with unexpected harmonic phrases, creating a totally different sound. When this morphed into “Seven Story Mountain” I realized that the segue, although beautiful, had me completely content with the sound of the moment. I could have cared less if they never let the jam they were in and was equally content with the sound of the Buddhist influenced set closer. It was at this moment that I achieved musical nirvana. I was in the moment and I was completely aware of my musical surroundings. It was everything at once. Well, perhaps I am overstating the experience. ,It really felt good and I’m sure the Heady Toppers were helping as well.
In that moment, I realized the direct connection in the jamband world between Phish and the Grateful Dead has little to do with the music. The more direct musical connection is between the Grateful Dead and Railroad Earth. Both bands are full of amazing individual musicians. Both bands will put enough individual ego aside to be part of the whole. And both bands play songs that allow for individual musical exploration to take the collective to its intended end. But most of these are characteristics of all top tier jambands, including Phish. What truly connects the music made by the Dead to the music created by Railroad Earth is an understanding and intentional acknowledgement while it is being created that the journey is the more important than the destination. I was immersed in the music of the moment and thankfully, so was the band.
As the second set began, I did not lose sight of this momentous moment. The music became more psychedelic at times, but never strayed too far from what was right in front of me.
A trademark of Railroad Earth’s rhythm has always been their stress on the 2 and 4 beats, but tonight with their newish bass player Andrew Altman, the band was more creative in these psychedelic spaces then in their previous incarnations, which were more firmly planted in the straight bass lines of bluegrass music. The band played it and we were all lucky to be “Living the Good Life” as the jams got looser. Although harder to resolve, this led to mere fun for all the players as they laughed long with the crowd. The songs continued to get looser without getting out of control as they swept into “Colorado”. Acknowledging a fan who had been calling for it for days, the set slowed a bit with a take on The Band’s "Acadian Driftwood" only to pick back up with “Right in Tune”, a song that was timed perfectly when I ran into an old friend. Fitting. “Like A Buddha” confirmed for me that I wasn’t the only one in venue finding clarity in my expanded consciousness. The practice of meditation, thousands of years old and continually led by the Buddha through its history, had taken a hold of me for the first time in many sonic adventures. And yet, the band’s encore of “One More Night On the Road” reminded me in an offhanded way that such a message was not unique to this evening. It is what the band strives to create every day.
This musical connection has stayed with me for a few days as I slip away from the sounds I heard that night. But I will not allow this feeling to pass. Staying in the moment with music is something that, on an expected off night with RRE, I have truly found for the first time in years and will cultivate as long as it I can find the proper way to nurture it.