By Michael Lester
Photos by Jesse Faatz
STROUDSBURG — Seventy-one-year-old bluegrass legend Peter Rowan danced a gentle solo waltz on stage, circling Tibetan-born vocalist Yungchen Lhamo as Railroad Earth wound down a cover of “Walls of Time,” a song of love and heartbreak Rowan co-wrote with the late Bill Monroe, generally considered the “Father of Bluegrass.”
Call Rowan old if you choose, but he certainly wasn’t in the way Saturday night at the sold-out Sherman Theater, where Railroad Earth took up residence for its annual two-day Thanksgiving weekend party.
With his twangy voice and acoustic guitar, whose body and neck he frequently hoisted toward his white mane, the Ted Kennedy-resembling Rowan stood on stage Saturday night as lead vocalist and revered bandleader for the sextet that originated a short distance across the river in New Jersey.
And RRE’s members were clearly tickled to be sharing the stage with bluegrass royalty, barely able to wipe grins from their faces throughout the evening. Mandolin player John Skehan has singled out Old and In the Way, Rowan’s ’70s Bluegrass supergroup that included David Grisman and Jerry Garcia, as the band that turned him on to bluegrass.
Dressed more formally than the next-generation musicians he was jamming with in an unbuttoned gray suit vest over an oxford and charcoal trousers, Rowan preceded Railroad Earth’s set Saturday night with a tranquil duo performance alongside Lhamo, a relatively recent vocal collaborator of Rowan’s who mesmerized the crowd with her somber melodious chants.
Rowan then sat in with Railroad Earth for its entire first set, playing — as advertised — Old and in the Way’s self-titled 1975 album in its entirety.
Throughout that first set, there were teacher-student moments. Rowan occasionally wandered to his right toward Skehan or to his left to violinist Tim Carbone while still strumming. Rowan would motion his guitar to invite them to take the lead with instrumental solos. When they were through, Rowan would nod his approval.
“Here’s a song written by a guy named David Grisman,” Rowan said, while introducing “Old and in the Way,” the third track from the album. The crowd of Hobos, as Railroad Earth’s followers are affectionately known, roared with appreciation.
But the Hobos’ biggest ovation would come later when Rowan saw fit to mention Jerome “Spud Boy” Garcia and the other three “illustrious members” of Old and in the Way — mandolinist Grisman, fiddler Vassar Clements and bassist John Kahn.
Railroad Earth took the stage without Rowan to begin the night’s mellow second set, which included a Bill Monroe instrumental “Old Dangerfield” and RRE originals “Mighty River” and “Seven Story Mountain.”
Rowan, who preceded the Railroad Earth show with a tranquil duo performance with Yungchen Lhamo, returned for a pair of songs toward the end of the second set, including the traditional folk song “Cold Rain and Snow,” a recurring number in the Grateful Dead, and, finally, “Walls of Time,” a regular part of Railroad Earth’s live rotation.
But the performance of “Old and in the Way” was clearly what drew some fringe RRE fans and those from out of state to Saturday’s show.
That’s exactly why 51-year-old Richie Burns from the Jersey shore was taking in his first Railroad Earth concert Saturday night.
“When I was 12 or 13, I wore that fuckin’ thing out,” Burns said of the “Old and in the Way” album, which includes a cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses.”
We also ran into another RRE first-timer, “Will” from East Stroudsburg, whose musical tastes are admittedly more Megadeth-leaning, and loyal hobos who traveled from as far as Wilmington, Del., and Danbury, Conn.
Saturday’s show was as crazy crowded a concert as I’ve seen at the Sherman since Furthur’s improbable appearance there in July 2010 that transformed the joint into a sweat box. It was certainly, by far, RRE’s biggest draw for its annual two-day Sherman run that I’ve been attending since 2007. It’s quite possible Railroad Earth, which has headlined shows at 9,500-seat Red Rocks, may have outgrown the Sherman. I hope I’m wrong.
RRE vocalist Todd Sheaffer made it clear he wants to spend part of his 2014 Thanksgiving weekend at the Sherman.
“We’ll have to do this again next year. Come on back,” Sheaffer told the crowd before launching into Saturday night’s encore of “Railroad Earth.”