Not quite bluegrass, jam band or rock ‘n’ roll.’ Railroad Earth dips and dodges the listener’s innate desire to cloister a group’s sound within the rigid boundaries of a definable genre. The group, who takes its name from Jack Kerouac’s short story ‘October in the Railroad Earth,’ boasts both a violin and a mandolin player, yet unlike traditional bluegrass music, the band plugs into amps and drums lay down the beat.
A year since their last visit to Boston, the band returns to the Paradise for two nights (October 23 & 24) in support of their latest record, 2008’s Amen Corner.
‘When we do two nights at the same place or even two nights near each other, we change things up,’ mandolin player John Skehan said in an interview with the MUSE.’ ‘It can be challenging while promoting a new record, to completely mix it up – but we’ll dig back into old stuff.’
The band, which hails from Stillwater, New Jersey – a small town in northwest Jersey, just miles away from the Pennsylvania border – is led by vocalist, guitar player and songwriter Todd Scheaffer. Scheaffer originally gained local stardom as the songwriter and frontman of the Jersey favorites, From Good Homes.
‘We were all on a break from our bands and we started playing together.’ Todd had some songs that he wrote for a new project and we had all played together before,’ Skehan said.’ ‘We recorded a few songs together, and pretty soon we were booked for Telluride Bluegrass Festival.’
Scheaffer is joined by Skehan on mandolin, Tim Carbone on violin, Carey Harmon on drums, Johnny Grubb on bass and multi-instrumentalist Andy Goessling on just about everything else.
Since 2001, which saw the release of the RRE’s first album, The Black Bear Sessions, the group has recorded four studio albums and Elko – a live album.’ On the most recent album, the group took a new approach to the recording process.
‘We recorded the new album at Todd’s house which was a nice way to make a record, because there wasn’t the pressure of being in someone’s studio,’ Skehan said. ‘Todd would write the basic structure of the song and then we would build upon it.’
‘We all come from a rock background but also had one foot in the acoustic world.’ I actually came to the mandolin later in life,’ Skehan said.’ ‘Being in [the Deleware Water Gap region], it’s not hard to find people to pick with . . . All the local acoustic guys used to meet at a local Elk’s Lodge and play together.’
Amen Corner features eloquent, yet bouncy tunes, reminiscent of the Grateful Dead’s pop sensibilities.’ Songs like ‘Waggin the Dog’ and ‘Been Down This Road’ are built around pop melody and the solos can be understood without the aid of herbal supplements – in terms of the Dead think more along the lines of American Beauty than Blues for Allah.
When asked about his perspective regarding comparisons to the Grateful Dead, Skehan said, ‘I don’t shy away from comparisons . . . [the Dead are] impossible to ignore.’ They were a rock band that wasn’t really a rock band and wasn’t quite country. We share that and an element of improvisation.’
‘ ‘Approaching a song with the mindset of ‘where is this one gonna take us?’ makes sure that both nights will be different.’ Should be a good party,’ he said.
Catch Railroad Earth at The Paradise this weekend.