Greensky Bluegrass - Railroad Earth - Leftover Salmon
29 Mar 2015 - Bluegrass Underground - Cumberland Caverns, McMinnville, TN
Live Music Review
for The Lot Scene by Parker
Cumberland Caverns and the Volcano Room
Few things prepare a person sufficiently for certain new experiences, for instance, I am sure that skydiving’s uniqueness certainly lends itself more towards actual experience than preparedness for it. Such is the way of your first descent into the earth for a fast pickin’ spelunking adventure like no other: Bluegrass Underground. Driving through the hills and woodlands of southeast Tennessee, past the sleepy nearby little town of McMinnville, the route to Cumberland and BGU is quaint and calming, rather the opposite of what awaits you down below the ground. Since the venue is so small (only 500 people), the box office and all other supporting infrastructure is proportionately small and serene as a result, making the ticketing process smooth and easy — their only box office is onsite so that is definitely a consideration if you plan on BGU in the future, especially a multi-day run. As you arrive, the parking lot is already peopled with folks tailgating and preparing for the cave in their own way — a lovely atmosphere in which to wait for the upcoming bluegrass wonderment. It would be wise to pack some snacks and drinks if you plan on being onsite for much longer than the shows; while they do have some for purchase both in the gift shop/box office and from the concession stand in the cave, the offerings are a bit narrow, especially for any with dietary concerns. The time finally came for us to line up in the woods to await our turn to head to the Volcano Room, the waiting a truly pleasant experience standing under the gorgeous blue Tennessee skies, soaking in the warming sun, making new friends all around, and listening to a little music of our own to get us ready and primed for BGU. But, what was that? Sudden movement at the front of the line?? And then it was time…time for the caving trip of a lifetime!!
After you enter the maw of the cavern, daylight begins to fade, noises begin to muffle, and the feeling of internment and solitude immediately overtakes you. Wandering past calcified structures and waterfalls and pools and columns the whole reality of what is to come settles onto the consciousness with a weight and a thrill all at once. Down, down, down you go until you reach the requisite 333 feet and your destination: the magnificent Volcano Room. Suddenly you find yourself in this natural bowl of a room with a crenelated stone ceiling, in the middle of which is a huge crystal chandelier. In the ceiling…of a cave. The stage to one side of the room, chairs aligned in front of it, row after row, all the trappings of a PBS TV studio apparent everywhere you look, people taking their places on the rocks and walls…instantly you know this is a special venue like no other. As if you needed me to tell you that. We were able through a fluke of happenstance to get some sponsors’ seats (who didn’t show for some reason) and so had an almost front row to snap photos and get and ear and eyeful of the goings on to relate to you here. And we were in the part of the crowd helping to make television — what a riot, what a crazy different sort of show!! Guess we’ll just have to wait until fall when PBS airs the specials to see if we got any good cameos…but I digress. There is MUSIC to discuss!!!
Setlist - A Letter to Seymour, In Control, Can’t Stop Now, The Four, Windshield, Burn Them, Kerosene, Wings for Wheels, Leap Year, Black Muddy River
After the PBS crew got us all seated and sufficiently warmed up and they flooded the recessed cave behind the stage with fog and had the Greensky boys convene with the very caverns back there, it was time to start the show. Watching Paul and Dave and Anders and all the lads emerging from the mists and taking the stage certainly must make for good television because it was incredibly powerful in person. Once in place, the band began with a sizzling quick “A Letter to Seymour” with Mr. Dave Bruzza on his strong lead vocals — just the kind of energy we needed to get this shindig going! This would kick of a set of ten songs, eight of the selections from their newest album, If Sorrows Swim. Hoffman was up to the mic next for the soulful “In Control” whose haunting melody lines rang entrancingly through the recesses of the mystic cave all around us. A searing version of “Can’t Stop Now” had us all bouncing in our seats next, the frenetic and joyful musicking of the band so infectious and incredible. In the remarks following, Paul and Anders were discussing how, due to an overabundance of popularity on the surface, GSBG would now be known as ‘Greensky Bluegrass Underground’, a concept they seemed to take to heart ripping into “The Four”…I think we should have all had “another cocktail” after that one. So, PBS, right? Public TV. That was at the forefront of all our minds as we watched and heard Phoff censor “Windshield” right before our eyes, which made perfect sense of course, however it was hilarious to see both his and Anders’s reactions to the concept: smiles, laughter, the funny. Continuing through the album catalogue, we got a very nice “Burn Them” replete with a very, very small tambourine “solo” by who, I am assuming, was one of their sound technicians. Made for a great sound in that cave, you betcha. Anders ensured that the surroundings most certainly did not go to waste, treating the crowd with a trippy, spacey intro to a fast picked “Kerosene” playing with the reflection of his dobro on the cave walls, you know, like Anders would. And did. And boy, did Bruzza have an “on” night — he was absolutely tearing it up all evening but really opened the flood gates towards the end of the set. Winding things down was a solid, solid “Leap Year” with Hoffman placing his distinctive voice back to the forefront and then finishing strongly with the Dead’s “Black Muddy River”. All told a hot, crazy good set played with speed, precision, heart, talent, and, let’s face it, love. These guys love what they do and we are lucky as hell that they choose to share it with us time and again. And we were very lucky that they shared this cave session with us!!!
Setlist - Chasin' a Rainbow, Railroad Earth, Mighty River, Like A Buddha, Water Fountain Quick Sand, Bird In A House, Black Bear
If GSBG’s set was all about their new album, Railroad Earth’s set was all about fan favorites and crowd pleasers. In fact, it was one of the best sets if not the best by Railroad I have ever seen. No hyperbole here. From start to finish just a foundational, sound set of music from this New Jersey band. After their auspicious emergence from the foggy depths, they led off with the always mellow but uplifting “Chasin’ a Rainbow” and then wasted no time in giving us their stirring and eponymous “Railroad Earth”. “Mighty River” followed, allowing various members of the band an opportunity to showcase the supreme musicianship and musical acumen for which RRE has become so well known as well as bringing forth some particularly tight jams. The light-hearted “Like A Buddha” and more intense “Water Fountain Quick Sand” continued this underground set landing at a riveting “Bird In A House”. Clearly not intending to disappoint, the band selected a “Black Bear” closer that proved both marvelous and apropos given our setting and locale. Throughout the set, John Skehan’s playing just mesmerized me…he appeared to be in a dimension of pure musical ecstasy. It was almost impossible not to watch him. Hands down most certainly one of the best sets I have seen Railroad Earth play — suffice it to say I am already jazzed to see the PBS special this fall so I can witness the whole affair all over again!
Setlist - Gulf Of Mexico, High Country, Get Up and Go, Two Highways, Aquatic Hitchhiker, Oh Atlanta, Liza, Down in the Hollow, Up on the Hill Where They Do They Boogie - E
If there was one thing to take away from this set it was how freaking on hellfire Drew and Andy were throughout…sizzling, smoking, spanking hot!! All of the above. Very good on the organizers at BGU for arranging the bands in the order they did, too. Having Salmon close was genius and, with the band on the heels of such a stellar performance the evening before (see my review for more info), it proved to be, in a word, ridonkulous. The sauce and sass of “Gulf of Mexico” jumped things off with Drew crooning away to us, the temporary troglodyte audience. Then it was juxtaposition between low surroundings and “The High Country”, one of my favorite Colorado anthems. After “Get Up and Go” Vince decided to lead us all in a bit of group humming, which ended up reverberating around the Volcano Room over and again…it was pretty cool. And Vince sure dug it (if his massive smile was any indication). “Two Highways” led to an “Aquatic Hitchhiker” introduced by Vince who spoke of blind cave crawdads who might be listening in to the show that night. Love that guy. Then, what was that? You want Bill Payne (of Little Feat) to tickle the ivories and tear it up for you? How about a rocking “Oh Atlanta” then? Good enough? Well, it was definitely more than good enough down in the Underground. The playful and enjoyable “Liza” was next in line followed by an apropos “Down in the Hollow” closer sung by Drew, whose previous time spent in Tennessee lent a special sentiment to the song. Unbeknownst to us, reeling in the shock and wonder and blissed out catatonia of what just happened, there was going to be an encore…we watched Salmon slowly reemerge from the hollow only to retake the stage and delightfully lambast us with John Hartford’s “Up On the Hill Where They Do the Boogie” which had every person dancing at their seat or in the aisles all over the cavern and they boys blew the damn doors off it this time. Drew and Andy were like madmen on their instruments taking it all to a frenzied fever pitch. A hell of a mighty way to end a once-in-a-lifetime show such as this. Honestly, I am still in shock from what I saw and heard. I am just so grateful I had the opportunity to make it to Bluegrass Underground and to these shows. If you ever have the chance to get to McMinnville and to the caverns I highly recommend you take in a show. Bucket list material my friends — make sure you make it!!