To make a great live album takes several things. First, you’ve got to have pristine sound. I need to hear all the instruments playing clearly, and the vocals need to be right up front. I wanna hear the crowd cheering, but only sometimes. Give me audience noise between songs and if there is a particularly brilliant bit of playing, otherwise keep the crowd in the far, far background. I really have no need to hear that guy screaming his request for “Free Bird”.
Next I want a great set list. Nothing sucks the life out of a concert like bad song choices. For me, this means not playing every song from the newly released studio album. If I haven’t had time to absorb the new songs, what can I sing along to? Man, I dig that you’ve gotta promote the new stuff, just mix it in with the old. A perfect set list includes some new songs, the greatest hits, some obscure b-sides and a few choice covers.
Yeah, I dig covers. Nothing perks up a concert like hearing a cool cover of something you just weren’t expecting to hear. You get bonus points if the cover song is something totally off the wall or from a different genre even. Like Sam Bush covering Bob Marley, or bluegrass band Hayseed Dixie doing “Hell’s Bells”.
Bonus points go to reworking the melody of one of your old songs. Who can forget the laid back version of “Layla” on Eric Clapton’s Unplugged?
Of course all of these things mean bupkis if the music sucks. An absolute must for any live album is that the musicians have to be playing at the top of their game. I’m an old school lover of improvisation. I dig the crap out of long, interesting jams. Nothing is more boring than an uninspired noodle fest, but a good band can turn a song on its head and create something inspiring out of the air. And if you can’t jam, then crank up the energy and give me something raw. If the song sounds exactly like the studio cut, then why am I paying for a concert ticket, when I can just stay home?
To release a live album takes a certain amount of balls. It’s expecting the audience to pay more money for songs they already have based on your ability to play in the moment. On the road there is no studio enhancement, no overdubs or producers tweaking every note, every sound. It’s just the band, and their songs.
To release a live album after only three studio albums and 5 years together as a band takes a lot more than balls. Yet that’s just what Railroad Earth has done with their latest album, the double live disk Elko.
Railroad Earth is something of a cross between the Grateful Dead and Sam Bush. It’s bluegrass through a jam band funnel. They are old school songwriters who think nothing about jamming a song out for 15 minutes.
On Elko they meet all of my criteria for a live album except playing covers. Every song is an original Railroad Earth tune, and it doesn’t hurt the album one bit. Honestly, I’m not overly familiar with any of their studio work, but there is enough improvisation and jamming here to make each song unique and certainly different than anything you’re going to find on a studio album.
Together the sextet plays over twelve instruments including the banjo, dobro, mandolin, pennywhistle and flute (and that’s just Andy Goessling!) which come together to form a whirling, swirling soundscape. It’s music to get lost in, and get up on your feet and boogie to as well.
Out of the twelve songs on this album five of them clock in at over 10 minutes. Improvisation is the name of the game. Mostly the boys carry it off. In songs like “Seven Story Mountain” and “Colorado” the music stays fresh and remarkable throughout its long ride. Occasionally, the jamming gets a little repetitive, yet just as I’m about to get bored they bring it back get my feet a tapping and mouth smiling.
If I have a real complaint here, it’s that some of the songwriting isn’t all that strong. For sure many of the songs evoke a lovely rural image and a real joy for life. Songs like “Railroad Earth” and “The Old Man and the Land” create lovely images and evoke a sense like a warm sunny day. Yet a few of the tunes, like “Like a Buddha” or “Bird in a House” neither catch me in their lyrics or their melody. A song like “Warhead Boogie” is even quite silly with lyrics like:
They’re building lots of warheads/building them all around
They’re loading them up on pads/loading them up on subs
Flying around on airplanes/driving around on trucks
Driving around on trucks
Though, it must be said that the warhead certainly does boogie. With one of the strongest jams on the album, the music there, more than makes up for its flighty lyrics.
And in their defense, even the Beatles wrote a few less-than-stellar tunes. Railroad Earth is proving they can write some strong songs and be able to put on a live show worthy of a two disk album. As a lover of live music, Elko is a welcome addition to my collection.