Sussex County-based Railroad Earth tours from Atlanta to Alaska — and annually draws thousands to its summer show at Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado – but rarely performs in its home state.
The current drought of almost two years in New Jersey is about to come to an end: The six-piece band is playing June 29-30 at the newly renovated Asbury Lanes. For information, visit asburylanes.com.
“(Asbury Park) is great. It should be good,” Tim Carbone (violin, guitar, vocals) said in a recent phone interview with NJArts.net. “I’ve never been to this venue. So we’re looking forward to trying something new down there.”
The last time RRE played the Garden State was in Maplewood in 2016, according to the tour archive on its web site. Before that? Go back to the first term of the Obama administration: 2012, in New Brunswick.
That means the uber-talented band with a strong following nationally has played more gigs in Alaska (two) in the last five-plus years than it has in New Jersey, the archive shows. Conversely, Railroad Earth regularly plays multiple dates in Colorado and the San Francisco area.
“The demographic out there is more geared to that they like that kind of music (we play), I guess,” Carbone said. “Generally speaking, (the Northeast is) a hard sell for almost any musical genre. There aren’t really a whole lot of venues in New Jersey.”
He also cited the costs associated with local venues and that midsized theaters in the state have seats, which the band’s dance-happy fans do not like.
Tickets are $30 for each night at Asbury Lanes and $50 for both, plus fees. Anyone attending Friday and Saturday will not hear the same set list. And though the venue that is a stone’s throw from the boardwalk holds about 750, don’t expect Railroad Earth to bring in much less than its full stage set-up.
“It won’t have the extensive look of Red Rocks, of course, (but) it will be a regular, full-on Railroad Earth show,” said Carbone, a native of Long Island, N.Y. “There will be no skimping.”
Formed on 2001 in Sussex County out of the remnants of several durable New Jersey bands (From Good Homes, Blue Sparks From Hell, Kings in Disguise), Railroad Earth has played north of 1,600 shows over the last 17 years. Still, with Sparta native Todd Sheaffer leading the way, the band works to keep its uplifting music fresh. In addition to not playing the same set on a given tour, the band is known to change song arrangements to keep things interesting for the audience — and musicians.
“We try to do something a little different every night. We’re always coming up with different ways to start songs or finish them, or segues between one or more songs,” Carbone said. “The nature of our music is we improvise in the spirit of every song. The nature of improvisation is creating something new all the time.
“We never mail it in; it doesn’t really work that way with us. There’s a kernel of spontaneity in pretty much every show. Expect the unexpected sometimes.”
The local shows are not quite the night at home they might seem to be at first. Most band members live in northern New Jersey, and Carbone lives across the Delaware River in Pennsylvania. So, they are closer to home than usual, but not quite close enough to commute to and from the Shore gigs. Don’t expect, however, to see the band members hanging out on the famous Asbury boardwalk either day.
“I’m thinking we’re not going to be (staying) anywhere near the ocean,” Carbone said, citing hotel costs at the Shore this time of year. “The idea that you’re going to spend the day at the beach is probably not going to happen.”
Railroad Earth, which has been called a “jamgrass” band for its updating the bluegrass genre with rock flavoring and drums, does not fit neatly into any label. Their shows feature the well-crafted songs of Sheaffer, intricate structures, extended jams and seamless segues from one song to the next. To the uninitiated, it can be hard at times to tell where one song ends and another begins.
The band — Carbone, Sheaffer (guitar, lead vocals), Andy Goessling (guitar, banjo,sax), John Skehan (mandolin, piano), Andrew Altman (bass, vocals) and Carey Harmon (drums, vocals) — is playing fewer shows this summer that it usually does during the warmer months. In the first four months of the year, when many national acts are not very active, RRE played 42 concerts. By comparison, there are 16 dates on the schedule May through August.
“We had more work through the winter and into early spring,” Carbone explained. “So, we’re not doing as many festivals this year. We didn’t get ‘em this year. It happens. … We fell through the cracks on a few, but we picked up some other ones that we wouldn’t have (normally).”
Fans of the band — dubbed Hobos — should fear not about the shortage of gigs this summer. It’s not by design, and a new, full-length recording is planned.
“We’re taking advantage of every opportunity we have, and that includes when we’re not going to be flying around the country like crazy. We’re just going to hole up in one spot and try to make a record,” Carbone said.
“We’re pairing things to fit on one LP. I think we’re going to that format for the most part. So look for somewhere in the neighborhood of 45-50 minutes worth of new music. But that may change — you never know.”
The band plans to go into the studio at the end of July or in early August and release the new songs in late fall or early 2019.
After the Asbury Park performances, the band plays a few dates out West in July and August. That includes the annual show at Red Rocks (Aug. 18).
“I hesitate to call it a tradition, because as soon as you say that it will go away,” Carbone said. “So I’ll say that it’s a beautiful thing that we get to do every year, and we are hoping that we continue to get to do it every year.”
When Carbone is not busy with Railroad Earth, he is … well, busy. He recruits bands to record for Lo-Hi Records, for which he is house producer. He also has two side projects.
The Contribution, called a “jam-band supergroup” by Relix magazine, released an album last year on Lo-Hi and has more new music on the way.
He also works with Goessling, Skehan and ex-RRE bassist Johnny Grubb in the Shockenaw Mountain Boys, whose rare recent dates have included two benefits for NJArts.net.
“By going to our web site, you can download songs that we recorded live at last year’s canoe trip (on the Delaware),” Carbone said. “It’s a single-mike recording of us around a campfire. It’s about as raw as you can imagine.”
Fans in New Jersey unable to make the Asbury shows can cross the Delaware River on Thanksgiving weekend, when RailroadEarth will hold its annual concerts in Stroudsburg, Pa.
For more information about Railroad Earth, visit railroad.earth.
Tom Skevin is an award-winning journalist and music publicist who resides in Sussex County. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.