Since the advent of the COVID era, more and more touring musicians have been stepping off the live-music industry treadmill and venturing into the up-close-and-personal realm of intimate living-room shows.
By most accounts, it was fun while it lasted. But now, more than a year into the pandemic, it’s still anyone’s guess what live music will look like, or even sound like, in the months to come.
There are a few promising signs on the horizon, though, not the least of which are Todd Sheaffer’s upcoming shows, including a Bakersfield stop on Monday at Great Change Brewing.
The frontman of Railroad Earth — a band that has long been revered in newgrass and jam-band circles for a sound that’s more Flying Burrito Brothers than Grateful Dead — is embarking on an ambitious tour with Coral Creek multi-instrumentalist Chris Thompson. They’re out playing shows for more than a month, without a single day off.
This is not Sheaffer and Thompson’s first COVID-era tour. Last fall, they played a string of dates as part of an “In Your Driveway (or backyard) Concert Series,” in which artists like John Doe and David Lowery perform outdoors using battery-powered lights and sound systems.
As for Railroad Earth, it’s been a lot more difficult to get back on track. The band does have a few upcoming dates on its calendar, though, including the High Sierra Festival in July and a show at Colorado’s Red Rocks Amphitheatre on Sept. 19.
We checked in with Sheaffer to talk about life during lockdown, the pandemic’s effect on the jam-band community, and what fans can expect from his shows.
Q: Let’s start with the most important question. When you go out on the road this time, which will you be playing more — driveways or backyards?
Sheaffer: We do them all. [Laughs.] We play backyards, driveways, front yards, side yards, porches, whatever the host thinks is going to work best.
How do you and Chris divide up duties during your shows?
Well, the way the shows have worked out — and it seems to be a natural progression — is that Chris plays an opening set, and then I come out and do my show. He’ll also join me at some point for a few collaborative songs, during which he plays some guitar, bass or Dobro.
It’s all real simple, which is kind of the idea, you know? I was a little skeptical at first, but it turned out to be really fun. The only downside was when it was freezing cold. So fingers crossed we’ll have good weather, because almost all of these shows are outside — there’s maybe one that’s not — and they’re all socially distanced.
I think one of the things this past year has taught us is just how important a role music plays in people’s lives.
It’s part of human nature, part of our soul. And when it’s not there, you really miss it. The only regret I have from the tour that Chris and I did back in September and October is that we didn’t bring a film crew along to document it, because it was such a unique experience and such a strange time. And things are certainly not back to normal, so I’m glad to have found a way to continue playing music with a smaller footprint. And the key here has been reaching out to the fans. They’re hosting some of these concerts at their houses, or we’re going into places that don’t normally have music, just setting up our own PA and doing our own thing.
Railroad Earth frequently headlines jam-band and newgrass festivals, where fans come together as a very close-knit community. Have there been ways to keep that spirit of togetherness alive during lockdown?
Honestly, the way that I’ve had the most connection with my fans was the little tour we did back in the fall. Railroad Earth also did a collaboration where fans sent videos of themselves jamming along to our song “Long Way to Go,” and we pieced them together so there were a whole bunch of those little squares of people’s faces, which was really great. I’ve also done a whole series of online holiday concerts from my house, and Peter Rowan and I got together on a tune that we put out to connect with fans. So there have been a few things here and there.
At Railroad Earth’s most recent show, the band covered songs by Tom Waits, Neil Young and The Waterboys. What covers will you be playing on this tour?
I can’t predict, because I make up my set list the day of the show. It’s just, you know, how I’m feeling that day, how the flow of the tour is going, what I played the night before, those kind of things.
Are there songs you feel like you have to play or else fans will be disappointed?
I really don’t think so. I actually think it’s more the opposite. They don’t want to hear the same thing all the time. But then I’ll play “A Bird in a House” and everybody goes crazy.
Have you ever tried not playing it?
Oh, I don’t play it every night. I play it every once in a while. Oh, hell no.
But you will play it in Bakersfield, right?
I’ll play it if there’s enough interest in the crowd and I know that they definitely want to hear it.
So if someone shouts it out as a request, then you’ll play it.
Or if I happen to have it in my set list that night. But I’m accommodating. I don’t have a problem with making someone happy by playing something they want to hear.