Saturday, May 15, 2010

Review: Hot Day at the Zoo and Railroad Earth at Port City Music Hall

There I was again, at the mercy of Hot Day at the Zoo’s infinitely uplifting sound. HDATZ opened for Railroad Earth at the Port City Music Hall, Portland, ME this past Thursday and it was NOT a show to miss. I had actually never, ever listened to Railroad Earth before in any form, but I figured that they had to be good if HDATZ was opening for them. I won’t lie about the fact that I mainly went to see HDATZ and I wasn’t disappointed. I tell you, these gentlemen speak in String. They played three of my favorite songs off of their newer albums called Mama, One Day Soon, and Ana Maribel…. all crazy excellent jams with great, saucy lyrics. I am still waiting to hear Old Mill… but that just means I have one (of many) main reasons to continue putting HDATZ at the top of my “Go See” list. Covers included No Expectations by The Rolling Stones (truly far better as a bluegrass song.. it was meant to be) and Foxy Lady (always SO fun!). Their sound is very fulfilling, incredibly uplifting, and yet still has an edgy side that I am extremely addicted to. Those four instruments (mandolin, banjo, guitar, and standing bass) combine in ways my brain cannot fathom… I especially noticed that night that the mandolin player is able to weave in and out of the music like the wind. Hot Day at the Zoo is playing a bunch this summer and I recommend going to see them as a necessary life experience!
I repeat that Thursday was my first experience with Railroad Earth live or otherwise. I was extremely impressed and it was quite evident that each of the members of the band are incredibly talented and skillful musicians. Railroad Earth consists of banjo, mandolin, fiddle, guitar, drums, and standing bass. But don’t let that fool you… the banjo player also played guitar, flute, slide steel, and (possibly most epic) two saxophones at once (in the song Hard Livin’… a favorite of mine for the evening). Literally one sax in each hand… I’ve never seen that before! I was very impressed. Other members were similarly versatile, both the mandolin player and fiddle player switched instruments and picked up guitars at various points. I’ve never really seen so much instrument switching, and it added to the fluidity and variety of their sound. I would describe their style as full of entire body-moving, wholesome, earthy tunes with many traditional references. However they also have a strong originality, likely due to the ridiculous skill level of each individual musician. I am NOT a religious individual, but each song was like a prayer… full of spirituality and soulfulness. Some of their songs almost seemed to reference Grateful Dead and multiple times throughout the evening I felt in many ways that they were the bluegrass version of GD, due to their free-form jams and the fact that their songs build, crash and build again like waves, but with many different hypnotic riffs and sounds that completely captivate the audience. Often their songs would vividly invoke imagery of rivers, a breeze through trees...especially the songs where the banjo player played the flute.
As I mentioned earlier I am addicted to music that has some undercurrent of tension, some kind of edginess. For me, that was the only aspect missing in Railroad Earth’s music… but that’s a personal preference. If you like String Cheese or Grateful Dead I believe you will LOVE Railroad Earth… those three bands make up a genre all on their own in my opinion. And I do have to say that there are only two bands I have seen in my life that I would describe as a venerable “wall of sound”… music that hits you from head to toe… that has no gaps or unfilled spaces… music that you literally feel like you just walked into a wall (a cushy, wonderful wall). Previously those bands were just Radiohead and Dave Matthews Band, but I would say Railroad Earth also is a “wall of sound” band and it’s an experience/label I am very specific about and that I make a point of pursuing.
To sum it up… I was blown away by Railroad Earth’s musicianship and unique sound. And as always… I somehow ended up head banging for HDATZ… those guys are probably tied for first with my absolute favorite up and coming band. GO SEE LIVE MUSIC!

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