If you ever wondered what a band lucky to be alive would sound like, Thursday night at Iota was your chance to hear. The members of Railroad Earth had an extra bounce in the beat and smiles on their faces, having survived a rear-ending of their van that very afternoon by an 18-wheeler.
A few instruments were lost in the wreckage -- Dave Von Dollen's substitute upright bass was apparently borrowed at the last minute from a local high school -- but otherwise the outfit was as fit as Tim Carbone's fiddle as the six-piece band romped through a delirious set of . . . New Jersey bluegrass.
The Garden State isn't ordinarily considered a hotbed of acoustic Appalachian sounds, but singer-songwriter Todd Sheaffer, formerly of From Good Homes, has assembled a band and written songs that perfectly fit the increasingly popular "jam-grass" genre. Eschewing the high-lonesome harmonics for a more rock-oriented vocal style, Railroad Earth offers a controlled urgency in its melding of flat-picked guitar, mandolin, banjo, fiddle, bass and drum.
And on occasion Thursday, multi-instrumentalist Andy Goessling added a flute to a mix that reflected Celtic influences, as well as mountain inspiration. John Skehan's furiously deft plucking of the mandolin brought the Emerald Isle to Arlington on the instrumental "Lois Anne," and Goessling and Carbone, propelled by Carey Harmon's percussion, sizzled through several brisk roots-oriented solos on "Pack a Day" and "Like a Buddha."
Sheaffer, singing with meaning (particularly on the beautiful "Bird in a House") and strumming rhythm guitar, grinned from ear to ear through the entire set, clearly happy to be alive. The feeling was contagious.
-- Buzz McClain