Wednesday, February 10, 2016

An Interview with John Skehan (and My Brief Foray Into Local Journalism)

Railroad Earth is one of those bands that is just about impossible to pin down to a single genre.  I think mandolin player John Skehan said it quite well when he described the group as, "...a string band, an amplified string band with drums."  The diversity of instruments, rhythms, voices, and styles is one of the things that ensures that each Railroad Earth performance is tremendously unique and spirited.  The New Jersey based sextet is a sort of musical chameleon going from rock to bluegrass to folk to tribal to...something delightfully indescribable, something uniquely Railroad Earth.  No other labels needed.
I recently had the opportunity to chat with John and catch up on what Railroad is up to these days.  He called from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where the group was set to perform at the Druid City Music Hall that evening.  It is just one of many stops on a massive nationwide winter tour they are "really diggin' into"--a tour which includes three stops in Montana next week.
Railroad Earth's concert schedule will see them driving across pretty much the entire country--from Georgia to Texas to Colorado to Oregon (with many stops in between) and then, finally, back to the east coast for performances in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington D.C.  Along the way they will play small theaters and huge concert halls and all sizes of venues in between.  When asked if he had a preference for any particular type of venue John responded, “The size of the place doesn’t really matter if the crowd is enthusiastic and feeds that energy to us and we, hopefully, feed it back to them.”  While winter tour doesn't necessarily lend itself to this he went on to add that, “Our music works really well in an outdoor setting.”  I must agree.  I've been lucky enough to see Railroad Earth both indoors and outdoors.  Performances in both settings have been phenomenal, but that sunny afternoon dancing on the grass at the 10,000 Lakes Festival will always remain fixed in my mind as one of the most perfect shows I've attended.
It is certainly no secret that these fellas cover a lot of ground both musically and geographically.  Loving to travel myself I was curious about the band's experience traveling this great country far and wide.  With a smile in his voice John replied, “Sometimes we’re lucky enough to get a break somewhere cool….and sometimes you get to see the parking lot behind the venue.”  He went on to say that their fairly packed tour schedule doesn't always allow them the freedom they had when they first started out.  “It’s not like the earlier days where we were pitching a tent and camping out for all three days [of a music festival]…”
Nothing in life stays the same though and evolution and growth is certainly an important aspect of the creative process.  The increasing use of technology by fans pushes the band to keep things fresh, to try new song transitions and combinations.  “You have to be willing to take chances and you’ve got to be willing to fall on your face,” John said with a laugh.  “It keeps it interesting for the audience…and keep it interesting for us, too.”  While at home in New Jersey the guys will get together for rehearsals, to jam and work out new material.  On tour where they're performing almost every night they utilize the sound checks before the show to keep their sound dialed in or test out new segues or jams they want to add to their repertoire.
Railroad Earth is one of an increasing number of bands which "allow and encourage" the free sharing of concert recordings made by tapers in the audience, in addition to selling authorized and higher-quality soundboard recordings after most shows.  This is in strong contrast to John's own concert-going experiences in which he had to wait for tapers to "come off tour" and send their recordings off through the US mail to those waiting for them.  There wasn't much in the way of quality control either or the ability to select recordings from specific shows.  As John put it, "you just got what you got."  It's easy to see that now is a great time to be a live music fan.
From his perspective there are certainly, “more pros than cons” to this increased technological presence at their shows.  The widely shared recordings are a tremendous "way to connect with a lot of people at once,"  and share the concert experience with a wide audience, even if they are unable to actually attend in person.  The only negative he specifically mentioned was having to be more discreet about playing new tunes live in advance of a new album soon to be released saying that the band tends to “hold back new [album] material because once it out there it’s out there.”  John went on to add that the fact that pretty much every concert is recorded and shared online is a good thing, encouraging the band to keep their planned setlists interesting and diverse.  It "keeps us on our toes," knowing that fans have heard the show from the night before and will be expecting something new set-wise for the following shows.
The variety of tunes they rotate through to make each set one-of-a-kind is truly remarkable.  John told me that they typically create the setlist in advance of each show though, “after the first set we might decide to reevaluate [the set] based on the setting and the response from the’s very intuitive.”  With about 15 years of music in their repertoire the band certainly has a lot of tunes to choose from during the crafting of the setlist for each show.  Everyone has a part in the process.  "It's definitely a group thing.  One person might start it…then everyone helps to shape it into the final thing.”
Railroad Earth's most recent album, Last of the Outlaws, was released in 2014.  That wasn't the last project keeping them busy in the studio however.  Railroad Earth partnered with guitar legend Warren Haynes to help put together an album called Ashes and Dust, a project Warren had wanted to bring to fruition "for a number of years," John said.  The timing was finally right and Railroad joined Warren in the recording studio as well as some live performances, including one at the Ole Oprey.  Ashes and Dust was released in July 2015.
Railroad Earth has a few summer music festivals lined up already--once again spanning from coast to coast.  Additionally the band is hoping to soon announce a run at Red Rocks Amphitheater in Morrison, CO this fall.   “Red Rocks is a very special place…” John concluded.  If you're looking at summer music festivals I'd keep your eyes out for these guys on the lineup.
Railroad Earth will be playing three shows in Montana this month and I highly suggest you catch them all if you can.  They will be performing Wednesday, February 17th at the Babcock Theater in Billings followed by a performance at the Wilma Theatre in Missoula on Thursday, February 18th, and lastly they will play for the Emerson Cultural Center on Friday, February 19th.  The three nights of music will be worth all the travel, I assure you.
The backstory to this post:
Last fall I started writing music reviews for our local, independent newspaper--The Outpost.  It was an incredibly sweet gig for me.  I got paid to write about and take photos of great concerts that I was already going to attend anyways!  I got to share my love of music and writing with the whole town!  It was sweet.

Unfortunately, as is the case with all too many awesome print media sources, the paper closed shop at the end of January.  It is a loss for me personally and for our greater community.  The independent paper is where I got the GOOD news that was happening in our town.  Our mainstream city newspaper tends to focus on negativity and crime too much for me.

The Outpost's closure also left me with an interview with John Skehan from Railroad Earth which I had nowhere to publish except here.  And there you have it.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Hellroaring Creek Hike

Over the weekend I was talking to Matt about Yellowstone.

"Are there campgrounds open year-round?"
"What roads are open already?"
Leading ultimately to:  "When is the earliest you think we could go?"

At this point Matt felt compelled to remind me that just because it had been unseasonably warm in Billings lately it could be a whole different story up in those mountains.  He's right, but still.  I think we should try to go in March this year.  We went in April last year and that was keen!  So, maybe we can bump it up to March this year.  We're more equipped these days for camping when there is still snow with the addition of snowshoes, wool socks, and gaiters to help keep us dry and comfy while we romp about.  So, we shall see.

In the meantime, here is a May 2014 (yes, 2014!) hike write-up that I never got around to finishing until now.   I'd considered just deleting the draft a dozen times, but somehow felt I'd want to get back to it eventually.  It was from a very special birthday weekend for me.  And here we are.
When Matt and I were on the Glacier Megavaction we got to cross over the dazzling, green Kootenai River on a suspension bridge.  When we heard that a hike to Hellroaring Creek in Yellowstone also included a suspension bridge we thought we'd give it a go.  While the suspension bridge near Glacier proved to be an unexpected highlight of the hike the bridge in Yellowstone proved to be a bit of a disappointment.  Oh well, nature had plenty else in store for us that more than compensated for it.
The Hellroaring Creek trailhead is just under four miles west of Tower Junction on the Mammoth-Tower Road.   Heading out from the parking lot the trail starts to lose elevation towards the river for about the first mile, passing through forest that was burned in the fires of 1988 and is now regrown.  After bypassing the junction with the Garnet Hill trail the (now unburned section of) forest grows thicker, offering a more limited range of vision, but soon the sounds of rushing water gave us hints that the suspension bridge would quickly be in view.
We had that first mile to ourselves, save for the birds and other small critters we encountered.  The spring flowers were in bloom and bright green shoots was starting to poke up through the winter brown earth--though much of the area remained the more subdued shades of sage green.  It was a beautiful spring day in the country with sunshine and a blue sky dotted with fluffy, white clouds to compliment the sweeping mountain vistas and sweetly diminutive spring blossoms.
Pasque Flowers
The suspension bridge crosses a fairly deep, but narrow gorge-- a portion of the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone--carved by the Yellowstone River.  Unlike the bridge over the Kootenai this one was much sturdier feeling.  There was hardly any bounce to it.  This was a portion of our disappointment in it.  There was scarcely any of the Indian Jones type adventure about crossing it.  It was, well, pretty much just a bridge.
That said, standing on the bridge, watching the water rushing and surging below, was pretty mesmerizing.  We leaned over the rails gazing into the constant swirls and sprays, marveling at the thunderous sounds of the water against the stone walls of the canyon.  It was marvelously loud.
Once on the other side of the bridge the trail climbs slightly through a lovely, sun dappled forest.  This early in the year we didn't need the shade so much, but we could see that the forest would make a swell mid-way resting point on a hot summer day.   We paused to examine bison hair which clung to many a rubbed tree trunk along the trail.  The season was right for the bison to start ditching some of their heavier winter coats.  We'd explored a different bison rub on the Beaver Ponds trail the year before and found it very interesting.  A pair of 20-something men from the east coast--the first people we'd seen on the trail-- stopped to chat and inquire about what we were looking at.  We taught them what we knew about bison, a creature they were quite unfamiliar with--and understandably so, being from the urban east.  They were pleased to have the info and continued on their way.  After giving the pair a good headstart we continued down the trail ourselves.
A bison rub, complete with dangling bison "dreadlocks."
Soon the forest was a thing of the past and the landscape shifted to one of rolling sagebrush country under a wide, open sky.  The expanse was scattered with "erratic" boulders, left behind by the long-ago glacial activity.  These sometimes massive rocks seemed both out of place and utterly at home at the same moment.  We spotted a few bison grazing on a distant sage-covered hill.
It didn't take long for us to catch up with the eastcoasters.  They had stopped at a small rise overlooking a pond.  The pond is actually another legacy of the glacial age called a "kettle."  Kettles are made when big chunks of ice are left buried in the land in the wake of a receding glacier.  As they melted they left a sort of sinkhole depression behind.  This depression collects water, which in this case remains through the fall and offers a sort of oasis for birds, plants, and other lifeforms in the middle of a sea of sagebrush.
And a herd of twenty or so bison were, indeed, making good use of it.
The trail wrapped around the pond and the east coast duo had (wisely, in my opinion) not felt comfortable getting that close to the bison so they had stopped to wait for us, to ask our opinion on it.  I wasn't about to get that close myself, particularly since the bison had several tiny, redheaded babies in tow.  So, together we watched the massive bovines graze and drink from our hilltop overlook.
We could have gone off trail and skirted around them, but wildlife "TV" is always good watching by me.  So, we waited and watched and talked about Yellowstone with our new (and inadvertent) hiking companions.  In due time the bison started trotting up the hill on the far side of the pond from our vantage.  As they went up, we went down keeping our relative distance the same.   Watching the bison charge up that hill was pretty spectacular.  They've got such grace and power contained in that lumbering, dark body.
The whole time we could see Hellroaring Creek--our final destination--just past the glacial pond.  When the bison moved on we were finally able to continue down the trail, past the pond, to the grassy, green banks of the creek.
Hellroaring Creek
Matt and the two fellas sat and talked awhile on the bank.  I took off my shoes and waded in the cold, clear water.  No matter how cold the water is, I like to soak my feet if I can.  It refreshes and invigorates me.  The eastcoasters eventually left Matt and me to our creekside solitude.  The water clipped swiftly past the trees that lined the bank and was just about the only sound to be heard.  After hiking through the sweeping sage country the comparatively abundant trees were a notable feature of the riparian zone.
When we'd had our fill of lounging creekside we turned back and retraced our steps.  Of course, nothing in nature stays the same and our return trip offered delights we'd not had on the first go, including a pair of playfully sparring antelope.  I use the word playful because when we first spotted them the pair was placidly grazing together.  Then, without any warning that we could perceive, they locked their antlers together and starting pushing each other around.  It reminded us of tug of war--back and forth and back and forth.  As quick as it started they went back to grazing together.  And then, again without warning, they were going at it again.  I don't know enough about pronghorn antelope to say what exactly they were about.  I'd guess it was a practice match between two younger males.  In any case, Matt and I sure enjoyed watching.  It was quiet enough--and they were close enough--that we could even hear them as they cracked horns together and rustled the surrounding shrubs.
The return trip also offered additional wildflowers to smell and admire, brilliantly orange butterflies, and a very vocal Townsend's Solitare.
Sagebrush Buttercups
Shooting Stars
In no time we were back at the bridge with just the last mile of our four mile round-trip hike to go.  Even with the 600 feet in elevation gain in that last mile the hike was a pleasant and relaxing one.  Next time we need to bring a picnic to munch on as we sit on the banks of Hellroaring Creek.
Now I am even more excited to get out in the park again soon.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Five Months of Onions

We used up the last of the onions from our garden in a pot of soup this weekend.
The last of the onions pureed up with winter squash and carrots into a African style peanut soup.
We harvested the onions in late August.  That means five full months of homegrown onion goodness.  It also means we still need to grow even more this year--twice as much, in theory.  Still, considering we cook with them daily--sometimes a couple of times per day--we're pleased with our ever-increasing progress towards self-reliance.  Matt will be starting the first way of onion seeds this week.  Round and round we go.
Onion seedlings from April 2015.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

A Spiced, Cinnamon Glaze

I am the sort of person that will seize on any opportunity to make a cake.  I frequently volunteer it for parties.  I like baking cakes.  I like frosting.  I like eating cakes.  I like birthday candles.  I like sprinkles.  I just like the whole cake shebang.

For my friend Scott's birthday party I baked an applesauce cake, knowing Scott and Kris to be the type of people who would appreciate the local apple element of the recipe.  Instead of a more traditional frosting I decided to pair the spiced applesauce cake with a cinnamon spiced glaze.  It dribbled down the sides beautifully and really completed the cake well.
Cinnamon Spiced Glaze
1/2 C powdered sugar
1/2 t ground cinnamon
2 T margarine, melted
1 T non-dairy milk
1/2 t vanilla or almond extract

Combine all ingredients until smooth.  Pour or drizzle over cake/cupcakes.
It was well received by the birthday boy--and Matt's family who ate the leftovers with dinner and with me, too, of course--and let's face it:  I offer to make cakes because its easy and I love cake.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Ginger in Love

Ginger in Love  

Watching her eyes,
Holding that meaningful green gaze,
I wonder:
    What is she thinking?
     What does she make of us?
      Of all this?

She loves me, clearly.
You can tell.
Its in the way she runs to me,
Waits for me,
Beckons me.

If we bring each other comfort,
If we make each other happy, contented,
If we prefer to be together,
If we crave each other's affection,
What else could you call it?
But love?

(written 10/6/2015)

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Review: Owls: Our Most Charming Bird

Fast on the heels of my coloring book review I have another Blogging for Books review.  This time I selected a very playful non-fiction book.  I guess I'd call it a  birding book for people who are not birders.  The book is entitled Owls: Our Most Charming Bird by Matt Sewell.  They certainly are charming--and so is the artwork in this book.
Frankly, I am not sure exactly how to go about evaluating and reviewing this book.  The birder in me has a hard time not being too critical.  I mean, the art was great, but I think I was hoping for a little more from the text.  Scattered throughout the different entries there are sentences which hint at the things that make owls so unique--their large, fixed eyes, facial disks, and specialized vertebrae, for example--but they were just hinted at.  I wanted more.
So, I guess I can say that if a person just wanted to look at sweet, cartoonish, little owl drawings this is the book for you.  If you want to actually learn about owls it might be an okay place to start, but will leave you, like me, needing to find out more elsewhere.  Maybe that is okay.  To just be a launching pad for further exploration.  I ended up reading it alongside my National Geographic Guide to the Birds of North America--though Sewell's collection of owls is certainly not limited to North America.
Owls is laid out a bit like a guidebook, breaking owls into habitats such as Tropical Owls, Woodland Owls, Desert Owls, etc and including a checklist at the end to mark the species observed.  The owl drawings and text are rather non-technical--though often quite humorous, giving anthropomorphic traits to the various owls based on their appearance or behavior.
Matt Sewell is, it seems, a talented artist who also happens to love birds.  This book is a combination of both passions.  Owls are beautiful and I can see why they would be a never ending source of inspiration for an artist.   There are so many kinds and they're all either A) incredibly adorable, or B) awesomely fierce-looking.
I love owls--that is why I just had to try out this book.  They're so majestic and mysterious--hard to spot and often only coming out for the night.  It was interesting to learn more about owls that live around the world--an owl that only lives in Jamaica, say.  As I was reading I realized that I'm really only familiar with ones I stand a chance of seeing in the flesh.  Owls are a gift for the whole wide world.  Every place on earth seems to have one.
I don't think I'll keep the book--though I might send it to my sister, who apparently also has a fondness for owls.  It was fun to read and look at, but I don't see myself reading it again--or using it as a bird reference book--so I cannot justify the shelf space in keeping it.
It really was cute though.

Full Disclosure:  I received a free copy of this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for my review.