If you go
• What: Railroad Earth, in concert for three nights.
• When: 8 p.m. Dec. 29-31.
• Where: McMenamin’s Crystal Ballroom, 1332 W. Burnside St., Portland.
• Cost: $25 for Dec. 29-30; $55 on Dec. 31 (21 and up only); $100 for all three days, through Cascade Tickets, 855-227-8499 or http://cascadetickets.com.
• Information: 503-225-0047 or http://mcmenamins.com.
Amid the spitfire fiddle and flatpick guitar solos, the sparkling mandolin accompaniment, the heavy-duty drumming and soulful, soaring vocals, it’s easy to miss the bass that anchors Railroad Earth.
So Andrew Altman is looking forward to the release of the band’s sixth studio album, sometime early in 2013 — because his bass steps forward and gets its due, he said.
“There’s a lot more bass woven into it, and not just as a support instrument,” said Altman, who joined the all-acoustic, bluegrass-steeped Railroad Earth in 2010. Before that, he was a veteran of outfits that play music that’s far more challenging to both listener and player. Altman studied jazz at Florida State University and came up through progressive rock groups like the Codetalkers and Blueground Undergrass, where his bass stayed plenty busy and he jammed alongside virtuoso special guests including members of the Allman Brothers Band, Phish and Widespread Panic.
Then, in 2010, Railroad Earth’s longtime bass player stepped out and Altman stepped in. He drove from his home in Atlanta up to the northern tip of New Jersey, and the little village of Stillwater, with his upright bass for an audition.
“I was totally surprised to find out they’re from New Jersey,” Altman said. Given the band’s popularity out west and its exuberantly big-sky celebrations like “Colorado,” it’d be natural to assume that Railroad Earth hails from a landscape of rocky mountains and vast prairies, not traffic jams and turnpike tolls. In fact, Stillwater is as rural as New Jersey gets — it’s a farming community with a population around 4,000.
When the band said yes, Altman found himself couch surfing around northern Jersey while boning up on a vast new repertoire. Now, he said, he calls nearby Manhattan home — except when he’s on the road performing that repertoire with Railroad Earth. When The Columbian caught up with Altman by phone, the band was just back from a festival in Mexico and resting up for a three-night run, culminating in a New Year’s Eve show, at the Crystal Ballroom in Portland.
“People just support us so much there,” he said. “There are a lot of big music fans in Portland, and some people will drive in from all over the place, Idaho and Montana too.”
Railroad Earth, formed in 2001, is an equal-parts blend of bluegrass tradition, catchy original songwriting and lengthy Grateful jams. It’s all built around the clever compositions and remarkable, plaintive tenor voice of bandleader Todd Sheaffer. Sheaffer, who earned a bachelor’s degree in English literature from Columbia University in 1986, aims his lyrics higher than predictable pop topics like longing for romance, repairing it or rejecting it: “Seven Storey Mountain,” “Black Elk Speaks,” “Like a Buddha” and “The Hunting Song” explore themes as big as what it means to grow up, endure loss, find joy and face death — individually and collectively.
All of that amid musical structures that may sound easy to the trained ear, Altman agreed, but leave lots of room for improvisational adventures.
“‘Seven Storey Mountain’ is simple enough, but it’s wide open; there’s such freedom to the live version we do,” he said. “There’s a place where the drums drop out and everybody is interacting … and it builds to this apex. Every time it’s different. Sometimes you fall on your face and it’s terrible, but other times the place just explodes.
“Other times, no matter how many times we play a song, it does the same thing. Sometimes stagnant songs come back to life later. It’s all about the amount we’re listening to each other. That’s what’s going to make it compelling,” Altman said.
In addition to these slightly cosmic explorations, every Railroad Earth show serves up plenty of boisterous bluegrass romps, rumbling rockers and tender ballads, too. The tasty hooks and mature themes in Sheaffer’s work are some of what Altman likes best about being in the band.
“I count Todd as a good influence on my own songwriting,” he said. “Something he does well is, no matter how personal the sentiment, the songs are always universal. He can write a great personal love song but write it in such a way that it could be anyone singing to anyone else. That’s the mark of a great accessible songwriter.”
Altman hopes it’s rubbed off on him. The new Railroad Earth album doesn’t just push the bass to the fore -- it also includes an original Andrew Altman song.
“I asked Todd to sing it so it sounds like Railroad Earth,” Altman said.