Railroad Earth at the Wilma

Jed Nussbaum on January 25, 2018

Photo: Jeffrey Neubauer

Railroad Earth frontman Todd Sheaffer summed up the vibe at their recent stop in Missoula with a few lyrics early in their second set: “Happy as a family, happy hand in hand / Happy as a family singing.” These beginning chorus lines of “Happy Song” characterize the convivial kinship struck between RRE and their “hobo” fanbase, who clambered into the venue to pull the band’s dense, atmospheric jams around them like a blanket against the winter cold.

Since poor driving conditions forced openers Whiskey Shivers to cancel the show, the headliners took the stage early. This scheduling upset didn’t seem to cause any hiccup in the band’s stride as they kicked off their set with a billowy “4:20” before multi-instrumentalist Andy Goessling’s flute called in the crowd favorite “Like A Buddha.”  By the time the band jumped into “Cuckoo Medley” halfway through the set they were in prime form, with fiddle player Tim Carbone delivering one waxy solo after another and Goessling’s spider fingers skittering through notes in similar fashion on acoustic guitar. A powerful version of “The Forecast” wove through jams both swampy and exotic, touching down on the rarely-played instrumental “River Intro Jam” that gave way to “Mighty River.”

After easing into second set with the laid-back ambiance of “When The Sun Gets In Your Blood,” the band elevated spirits and dancing shoes with the jubilant shout-along “Happy Song,” dedicated to a married couple in the crowd who used the song in their wedding. Another rare treat came in the form of Bill Monroe’s “Jerusalem Ridge,” which found Carbone and mandolin player John Skehan locking eyes from opposite sides of the stage as they played complex harmony lines while Sheaffer’s unwavering smile beamed from mid-stage.

The new tune “Captain Nowhere” kicked off a seamless suite of songs that lasted most of the rest of the set, dropping first into the band’s funky reworking of Tim O’Brian’s “Walk Beside Me” that showcased a flawless solo from bassist Andrew Altman. Skehan’s gauzy picking beckoned another song off the recent EP, “The Berkeley Flash,” then sat down behind his keyboard to round out the batch with the slow, orchestral rocker “Face With A Hole” The biggest setlist surprise came at the end, as the band dusted off Woodie Guthrie’s lilting “Way Over Yonder In A Minor Key” before seemingly acknowledging the winter roads still to come the next day with “Long Way to Go.”