Monday, May 2, 2011

Railroad Revival Tour: San Pedro

Two Fridays ago I was lucky enough to get to see the San Pedro stop on the Railroad Revival Tour. (I know, awesome right?)  I've really been enjoying not only getting to go, but also being able to share the excitement with the community of people who are interested in these three awesome bands, and who, moreover, were enthralled with the idea of a train theme tour where community-building and creative cross-pollination can get going in high form. 

A friend recently wrote a blog post about the use of jargon to instantly identify participators in your preferred sub-culture.  In her case, she was referring to nerdy lovers of "Firefly" and Broadway musicals (represent, yo!).  I can completely relate, I've likewise loved seeing "RRT" and other shorthand on people's facebook profiles, and I've enjoyed discussing the relative merits of Old Crow Medicine Show, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, and Mumford and Sons with my friends. 

So, even though I'm well aware that this blog post is arriving behind schedule, here are my impressions of the Railroad Revival Tour:

The Train: So Cool.
Here's my own messy picture of the train.  As you can tell from the lettering, these are some beautiful, authentic vintage cars. 
Here is a better one.  Photo credit to the good folks with the railroad revival tour:
 This idea is so amazing.  All three bands were obviously enchanted with this train- and referenced it in song and conversation between songs- often referring to it in the charming feminine form.  As a future historian, I'm really proud that these groups not only reveled in the idea of the songsters of old that inspired their current genres- floating halfway between drifters and bards, traveling the country on the rails- they actually relived it- and in beautiful, vintage cars, each one with it's own personality.  Musicians often advocate for the importance of preserving instruments, but here they extended their halo over an entire train!  Part of the choice of venues for each of the stops on the tour (I extrapolate from the choice of Ports o' Call Village, San Pedro) was to allow the audience to also see and participate viscerally with the train.

Tommy, who arrived a few minutes before M and I did, got to watch the train pull in, with band members waving out the doors, windows, and back of the caboose.  What perfection!

The Company:  Awesome.
Is this happy face or awkward face?

I really enjoyed going to this with Tommy and Malcolm.  Good buddies and who both happen to have just the best lack of negativity at things like this.  It was special to get to remember the good vibes from folk singing nights on the Wiess Terrace with Tommy, one of my fellow participators, and with music that captures the same spirit.   

The Crowd/ The Venue:  Huge/Appropriately Gritty

These are all the people behind us.
The crowd was giant.  Tickets for this event sold out so quickly, I expected it to be a small, intimate affair.  Ummm... not so much, but that made it better!  Tommy and Malcolm, who have been to more of these sorts of things, tell me that it felt more like a festival than a concert.  Which is awesome for me, since this was my first "realer" concert. 

Earlier this spring I went to my first "real" concert (i.e. not Jamfest, or someone I personally knew performing) to see Vienna Teng perform, but this was an entirely different experience- loud and huge and buoyant and accompanied by lighting effects.  There were so many people, some in "railroad" inspired costumes, some in overalls, some dancing, some drinking, some smoking, some goofing off- all jovial.  The mood could appropriately be described as infectious. 

The venue itself was a fenced off section of parking lot between the touristy area that makes up Ports o' Call Village- an outlook spot for the huge working port of Los Angeles- with cruise and industrial ships sending waves splashing up on each other on one side, and train tracks and a highway on the other. And there were about eight food trucks.  As I said: both fair-like and industrially gritty; which, when you think about it, is pretty appropriate for bands all heavily influenced by the music of the traditional working class.

Old Crow Medicine Show: So Fun
Funny Story:  I happen to have so many friends that are HUGE fans of Old Crow Medicine Show, that when I first heard about the concert I thought they were the headliners.  Sure, I thought, Mumford is really big right now, but they are a pretty young group.  OCMS are the veterans, right?   They'll have the largest following, right?  No, Tommy told me, not so much. 

OCMS, it seems to me, is a very regionally-specific band in terms of style and mythos.  If you didn't grow up appreciating the nuances of Tennessee bluegrass, and if you aren't entirely sure that dating a girl who wears perfume "made out of turnip greens" is an appealing option, then you're not entirely going to appreciate how good this band is at what it does.  But that doesn't change the fact that they are absolutely are great at what they do, nor that they are energetic, friendly and completely a class-act.  They had no trouble filling their set with one great song after another, which is not something Edward Sharpe can claim.  After seeing that only the front third of the crowd could sing along, it made me sad that they're not a more popular group. 

They also were the band that suited the idea of a railroad themed tour best.  They played the music that felt the most attuned to that particular yester-year, and included a song in their set about the tour and the train itself.  Go team!

Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros:  Meh?
I also have a lot of friends that also really like this band, but I'm not sure I see the appeal.  To be fair, my ambivalence may have had a lot to do with some situation-specific mishaps.  Practically the whole set was punctuated by Edward-actually-Alex grudgingly apologizing that they were "working something out".  What they seemed to be working out was two-fold, first was an issue of feedback, which is excusable when a band of this size doesn't have time for a sound-check- Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros looked like they were about 14 people strong for this evening.  But they also seemed to have not discussed their set-list prior to going out on stage, which just seems unprofessional to me- especially considering that they were living on a train together

And here's the real kicker for me- when the audience was less than completely overjoyed with what was clearly a less than completely prepared performance, and some unpleasant feedback, Edward-actually-Alex reacted peevishly.  He criticized the audience for not putting their "bleeping hands in the air", and generally acted either freakishly hyper or vaguely annoyed at the audience.  And he kept asking (over the microphone) how much more time they had to fill- it created the impression that he couldn't wait to go do something else. 

Sure the music was happy and interesting enough- and the moment when one of the band members, Jade, had her father come onstage and play guitar with her was very sentimental.   But here's the deal: for a band that's supposed to be about happy feelings, and good vibes, and "Home"- with a front man who purposely cultivates the whole caftan-wearing, I'm-too-much-of-an-artist-to-comb-my-hair, musical messiah thing- I would have expected them to perform more gracefully and less frantically under pressure.

Mumford and Sons: Woah Daddy Hot Damn!
I completely approve of how this band exploded into popularity.  They, like OCMS, are a class act- flawlessly performing a well-designed act- but unlike OCMS, their mythos is universal to any one of the countries that rode on the back of British Imperialism and count multitudes of poor English and Irish laborers in their registers of history.  You don't have to be from the South to feel like you own this music- if you have an Irish ancestor who lived during the nineteenth century- and really- who doesn't?- then you feel like you own this music too.  Furthermore, many of their lyrics are inspired by Shakespeare- the most ubiquitous of English-speaking cultural heritage.

As a white person, a European mutt bred on American shores, I feel like I have very few "cool" cultural things to be proud of.  I don't get quinceneras, or dragon parades, or awesome spicy food with exotic ingredients- what I get is music like this- that hearkens back to a scrappy race with a love of the fantastic and the epic, who fought and strived, and gave their sweat and blood to the American Industrial Revolution, who lent their somewhat less than legal persuasion to Australia and New Zealand, and who created an evocative history in their own Irish and British homeland.

Feminine Aside: really, Mumford just looks like he walked out of a black and white photo, with his boxer's jaw and rakish suit.  (Excuse me while I pause to fan myself).

Anyway, sure, Mumford and Sons is a young band- but with some seriously multi-talented members (I love it when bands hot-potato instruments, don't you?), a front man who is obviously both respectful of his audience and really good at cultivating an evocative aura, a maturing, developing sound (the new music they played sounded like it was written for larger audiences, they're coming into their own and they know it), and some smart lyrics (re: Shakespeare above) what's not to like?  Based on this performance, it looks like they are making all the right moves, example: can I hear it for the newly-added horn section?  Plus they take this great story- this Irish/English inspired folk music, and wrap it up in South African, rock, and jazz influences and becomes something special, something unique...

Fine, I'll just say it, I love this band.  

The Vibe:  Perfection:
I am well aware how lucky I was to get to see this as my first concert.  The bands themselves were clearly pumped to get to have such a life-changing creative experience, and it's always special to peak over the shoulder of someone who is clearly a master.  And all of the bands, even Edward Shape, are clearly masters of the art of folk/bluegrass/rock/pop/jazz fusion.  This train is truly bound for Glory (at least in the memories of all the people who saw it riding the rails).            


  1. Thanks to this post, when my friend told me yesterday that "Mumford and Sons is coming but they sold out already," I was able to express genuine disappointment.

  2. That's my goal in life: bringing regret to all peoples in all lands!