Can’t Ignore The Train: Three Bands and a Revival on the Banks of the Mississippi

April 29, 2011 editor Andrew William Smith reports from closing night of the Railroad Revival Tour in New Orleans, Louisiana.

They come from the four corners. They could hear the train whistle blow. They bleed fandom and spit lyrics and live for the emotional salve that great art gives a wounded world.

Some brought children. Some decorated themselves in costumes. Some were the real hobos and had to stand outside the venue with their dogs and grimy faces, catching the show for free. Some dodged downpours and downed trees and took devilish detours through tornado-tortured Alabama just to get to the gig.

But by Wednesday night, we stood as one congregation, our backs to the hot dirty breeze of the Mississippi River breathing on our necks. Some of us remember where the word “revival” comes from in the American south, reverently noticing the report from Rolling Stone that the bands celebrated Easter on the train, singing hymns and reading verses from the Holy Bible.

The evening unfolded as spiritual celluloid on the big screen of our souls. We slipped into the French Quarter to feast on oysters, salmon, and shrimp. Thick muggy air never turned to rain, but it’s as if we could get baptized from the sheer moist density of it. The train late, we postponed going inside and hovered near the tracks with a gaggle of other fans. We’d been hearing boats blaring all afternoon, mistaking their waterlogged drone for the particular moan of a metal snake slithering down the rails.

Finally, the entourage arrived, instantly surpassing any hype and entering the realm of the hallowed. Antique Amtrak cars bear names of states. The words “California Zephyr” zapped a pit in my chest as I immediately wept inside for Jack Kerouac and momentarily longed for the song penned for On The Road’s author by Jay Farrar and Ben Gibbard .

De-training with backpacks and duffles and suitcases, the artists hurried into the backstage area. There was no time to dawdle, as showtime lurked imminent. All night, warm breezes tickled the hairs on my neck. Long lines at porta-potties, the merch table, and the food-beverage tents were never too long. Large crowds watched for free from outside, and no one seemed to care.

We found a patch of grass, up close, off-to the side, near the stage but nearer the river with a little leg and elbow room to dance with abandon. Bright young kids from toddlers to pre-tweens danced and goofed around, fighting over a Frisbee or fondling a glowstick.

I’m not sure who the stage announcer was, but he seemed to take some joy in mis-naming the bands as he brought them on: Old Crow and the Medicine Show or Edward Sharpe’s Magnificent Zeros.

Thanks in part to this tour and to Old Crow Medicine Show, fast and furious old-time string band music—previously found at fiddling festivals and Appalachian fairs—has successfully infiltrated the jam band scene and now the perimeters of the mainstream rock world. Animated and energetic, Old Crowd reveled in our riverside digs as they kicked down several hybrid jigs. Some songs took on tender subjects like choosing corn liquor over cocaine while others traveled a higher ground like “Take Em Away,” where Marcus Mumford joined the band on lead vocals, belting this beatific chorus: “Take ‘em away, take ‘em away, Lord/Take away these chains from me /My heart is broken ‘cause my spirit’s not free /Lord take away these chains from me.”

Through patches in the clouds, we watched the sun sink slowly into the New Orleans skyline. “Wagon Wheel” was the wanted and expected first-set closer. It turned out each band would play a little less than an hour, and with relatively brief breaks between sets, the whole show stretched just a little more than three hours.

Giving this whole Railroad Revival thing an extra edge of counterculture cred, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros are everything you’d heard and expected: thrown-down and thrown-together, a throwback gypsy caravan recently teleported from the planet of good vibes. Packing as many people onto the stage as possible like a high school musical on acid, with this band, all of our messianic hallucinations of Jesus hippies have been realized. Move over fans of Rent and Glee, we’re bringing back Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar with an improved and original soundtrack.

Amid this great and glorious set, lead singer Alex wore his road weariness a little too close to the brink, his vocals scratchy, screeching into incoherent rambles between songs. But he improved the further he fell out of himself and deeper into the songs, closing with an epic and euphoric rendering of the anthem “Home.”

From Lollapaloozas to Lilith Fairs, we’ve seen many attempts over the years to package the true road-rambling spirit of rock and roll for a mass audience. From each successful and failed festival, lessons are learned and then forgotten. But some surpass all previous attempts. If Glastonbury and Bonnaroo and Coachella have bettered on Woodstock, the Railroad Revial Tour did its best to top the all-but-forgotten Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin Festival Express. Distilling the dynamic mojo of true folk music and elevating the nostalgia industry past its obvious pretensions, the Railroad Revival Tour framed a moment in time, invoking Woody Guthrie’s art of the great depression to embark on a universal mission trip to nodes in our great recession.

Within the fragility of our souls, to paraphrase Marcus Mumford, we all secretly craved and waited for this experience—even though we only even learned about it a few weeks before it was to take place. It’s like it had been planned for subtle eternities by supernatural engineers, and each fan heard her own unique call from the innermost innards to follow the train whistle, no matter the cost.

So we found ourselves at the closing set of the closing night of a whirlwind week, the night dark but still balmy. After Mumford and Sons took the stage, it didn’t take long for them all to attain soaking sweats. Delivering songs with the joy and vigor that God intended, Mumford and Sons make sonic myths from simple mysteries, crafting spirited and spiritual songs about love and faith and failure and redemption that everyone can hear themselves in.

As I shouted each refrain of  “Awake My Soul” at the top of my lungs much to the annoyance of fellow fans within my orbit, the song told me stories and taught me lessons about myself, of what I have lost and what I have gained by risking so much for adventure and pilgrimage over the years. But for the better part of three hours tonight, it went passed the burned bridges and the grace of new starts to a familiar place. This show took me to a place I’ve always been looking for but in reality have always been, if only I just noticed and gave thanks—the place of love and God and friendship and freedom.

Whether belting the familiar tracks from their bestselling album or crooning new songs “Lover of the Light” and “Lover’s Eyes,” Mumford and Sons owned the gorgeous Woldenberg Park. They owned the park and the night and the times when music like theirs is so obvious and necessary—they owned it all only to let it go and give it away to their fans and family of fellow-travelers on the tour.

It’s great to be growing older while watching a scene that’s growing up give the world some of the greatest popular music it’s ever known.  The Railroad Revival Tour was all that and then some. Rock and roll history instantly rolled into legend, and for just one night, we got to live it with a community of fellow travelers.

–Andrew William Smith, Editor

All Photos by Jimmy Grotting, courtesy of

Mumfords, Magnetics, & Old Crow: This Train Is Bound For New Orleans

April 19, 2011

If anyone doubted the popular resilience of acoustic roots music within mainstream rock, Mumford and Sons ended the debate for now for with their top-selling record, with their recent performances on the Grammies and at Coachella.

This spring, like a gang itinerant preachers, the West London quartet that reinvented gritty Americana with a touch of British posh have hitched themselves to the train of a literal revival. Opening this Thursday on the West Coast and taking six days to reach New Orleans, the Railroad Revival Tour brings a triple bill that adds two artists of a similar disposition: Old Crow Medicine Show and Edward Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeros.

Addressing attendees on the tour website as “fans, friends, railroad enthusiasts, hobos, drifters and saints,” the deep vintage nostalgia caravan shows only a thimble of resemblance to the Joplin and Dead 1970 Canadian railway hippy chaos immortalized on the film Festival Express.

In this far-flung, fast-paced, fragmented culture, hardcore music fans form a devout intelligentsia, willing to travel long distances and squander significant quantities of cash in search of life’s deeper meaning. This tour reaches this demographic like a perfect, sacred parchment of the super-authentic, as the postman delivers by hand our souvenir tickets resembling railroad vouchers and embossed with the 3D-effect of novelty-store postcards.

With music as soulful as America’s imagined spirit of the early 20th century, these artists have loaded all our collective dreams onto a vision that’s “1,500 feet long and consists of 15 vintage railcars from the 1950s and 60s, pulled by two locomotives.”

The tour’s official announcement explains, “The bands will eat, sleep, and record on the train as they travel across the American Southwest, bringing their collaborative vision to fans from California to New Orleans. The bands will have equal billing and equal time on stage, in an environment that encourages creativity and cross-pollination. The entire tour will be the focus of a documentary that captures the spirit of the journey and gives intimate insights into the creative process.”

With Mumford’s Winston Marshall invoking Woody Guthrie and describing the whole idea as a “glorious disgrace,” fans across the country booked their own travel and scrambled to score tickets to one of the six sold-out shows. Ketch Secor of Old Crow Medicine Show explains the tour like this: “It’s bound to be one hell of a steel-wheelin, railroadin good time…while the western country rolls by and the smoke rises blacker than musical notes pouring out of that stoked-up-and-chuggin iron chariot.”

Imagining that a tour just like this will probably never occur again, or will at least need to wait another 40-years (the time since the aforementioned psychedelic train ride across Canada), we’ve decided to disembark from the daily grind for two days and dispatch to New Orleans for the tour’s conclusion. Check back at the end of next week for the report.

–Andrew William Smith, Editor