BY JAMES MOORE
It was Theo Bowen, he of the lanky gait, who mentioned I shouldcheck out an instrumental group called Explosions in the Sky. As fate wouldhave it, I had just gotten a CD from a San Diego band named The Plot to BlowUp the Eiffel Tower.
No, I’m not making this up. The Plot was scheduled to play Gabe’sin Iowa City end of February. I mean, come on, talk about sounds like themespirit, article title nirvana, the prefect twofer: Explosions in the Sky andthe Plot to Blow Up the Eiffel Tower!! My little writing Jones was doing somersaultson a pogo stick.
For the record, I am a name-aholic. I love naming bands and band names, songnames and article names, company names and website or blog or book or movienames. It’s an affliction, an addiction. Some people are born that way,I guess. I get started on band names and it’s Rip Van Winkle time. ThePlot & Explosions together thrilled me. A perfect slam dunk, not a CIAslam dunk; it was pure Michael Jordan—with or without the Hanes.
But, alas, my glee proved short-lived. As with so many things that theme toogood to be true, the Plot sickened and canceled their tour. Bereft, I driftedlistlessly. Like a cement-booted Icarus lost at sea, I found myself rummagingthrough trash cans, pulling out tufts of hair, and beating my chest.
It was at this point that Chris Johnson called and asked if I wanted to goto Des Moines with him and Hugh Harvey to see a group called Railroad Earth.With wistful whimsy I acceded to his generous offer, realizing that thoughonly the most distant of cousins, there was a certain elemental aggregate soundto Explosions in the Sky & Railroad Earth, albeit more in a War Betweenthe States vein than say, Jack Bauer on the “hit” show 24.
Whatever, I got carsick on the way up to Des Moines, barely making it intoa Casey’s in time to unload my yoke. Now, I’m no tea leaf reader,but this did not appear to be a good sign. After convalescing at a restaurantdown the street from the Vaudeville Mews, I ambled over just as Railroad Earthwas taking the stage.
The place was packed and fortunately smokeless. The smell of stale beer gavemy pale green stomach a few second thoughts, but I found a perch against astairwell near the front and propped myself up. Nice vantage point. Man, theplace was sardines central, the capacity of 230 reached long ago. It was ayoung crowd, hopped up and buzzing, a complete contrast to the band.
RR Earth is a six-piece acoustic outfit that plays basically Americana-stylecountry rock with hints of bluegrass in a jam band blender with three-partharmonies tight as grandma’s quilt and a sort of relaxed wholesome earthyrocking chair vibe that kick-stomps with a lot of boom-chick, boom-chick railroadbeats, hence the moniker lewinsky. It smacks of the time when rock went countrybefore it was even called country rock. There is that feeling of going to thecountry, got to get away, of leaving suburbia, living off the land, me andyou and a cat named Booboo, existing peacefully in nature, a sort of gypsy,pre-yuppie, neo-hippie existence.
Lead singer, guitarist, and songwriter Todd Sheaffer has a certain Jerry Garciavocal quality/guitar melodic sense. As laid back a front person as I’veeven seen, he sings and plays without moving much, staring ahead mostly wideeyed, either Zen-like or well-bored but fully delivering, especially tastyleads. Tim Carbone contributes deft soaring violin parts and background vocals(as do all six members). Andy Goessling plays guitar, banjo, mandolin, andall manner of stringed and blowy things. John Skehan fills the solo mando slot.Johnny Grubb plays stand-up bass and has the perfect name for one who does.Carey Harmon is the designated drummer.
My initial hit was disappointment, because when I hear “jam band,” itconjures images of left turns and blown pistons—and these guys come acrossthe opposite of blown. They are serious players, semi-elegant, textured, andbaby-butt smooth. Such a juxtaposition to the vociferous, well-oiled crowdgrooving on the classic song structures. The music is Beverly Hillbillies meetsthe Incredible String Band at the corner of Grateful Dead and Yonder Mountainwith a dash of Buddhist compassion riding a mule train. It’s a tightship, well-moored, very satisfying supple stuff, an acoustic joyride. Tim Brittonwould love this gang, his uilleann pipes meshing nicely in spots.
Song titles off their live release Elko tell you where they’re at lyrically: “MightyRiver,” “Colorado,” “Seven Story Mountain,” “OldMan and the Land,” “Bird in a House,” “Like a Buddha,” and “RailroadEarth,” my favorite. I like “Warhead Boogie,” with the line: “Iwant a warhead of my own,” echoing my own philosophy on nuclear arms:If they truly act as a deterrent then everyone should receive one at birthand be done with it.
Which brings us to Explosions in the Sky.
The group’s first album, How Strange, Innocence, was recorded in twodays in 2000 in Austin. The three guitarists hail from Midland, TX, hometownof Dubya. Drummer’s from Rockford, IL. “There’s a lightnessin a few of the songs that we probably won’t reach again,” saythe liner notes. Well, it killed me. But then I’m a sucker for guitar-basedmoody instrumental music that ebbs and flows and takes you places emotionally.How Strange is effortless, intimate, devastating, musically lyrical, a “young” recordas the band readily admits (they’d been together only 7 months when theywent into a studio for the first time), no tricks, triumphant.
Hubris free and sweeping, it guts you like a French movie, caresses like velvet,suitable for background unobtrusion or full throttle enjoyment. Little marchingtantric drummer boy snare beats build tension, silences erupt in wailing cacophonousmontages that swale into gentle eddies and seagull cries explode back intothematic guitar melodies and then release. Emminently listenable and extremelyvisual. If it’s too wild, don’t worry, it’ll mellow out.If it’s too languid or flaccid, don’t worry, the fuse is lit. Spiderwebmelodies weave into mini-epic lava flows, ranging in intensity from delicatesunlight splashes on a shag carpet to hurricane gale force winds against anabandoned tin shed.
Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell theTruth Shall Live Forever and The Earth is Not aCold, Dead Place. Great album names. Apparently theyare amazing live.
A new record is in the works, possibly not till 2007. “All we can sayis we’re trying our best and really excited about the stuff we’recoming up with,” says their website. “Once it comes out we’llbe touring all over the place (North America, Europe, Asia, Australia), sohopefully we will see you then.”