Words by Caroline Schwarz; Photos and video by David Tracer
Traveling the western half of the U.S. in a Four Winds RV, for approximately 35 shows with nary a break, Todd Sheaffer and Chris Thompson are undoubtedly two of the hardest working guys in the music biz right now. Granted, there is still not a whole lot going on, but even by pre-pandemic standards we’d say that label is fitting. Playing a mix of venues like breweries and house parties, all in outdoor settings, each night includes an opening set from Chris (Coral Creek) followed by a set of Todd (Railroad Earth, From Good Homes), with nightly cross-pollination between the two and a variety of special guests they are picking up along the way.
The format is loose, with plenty of stories, jokes, and banter between the stage and crowd. But most importantly, each show features a wealth of top-notch musicianship from these two ace musicians. The first two shows of the three that I attended, in Oakdale and Sacramento CA, also included the delightful presence of Erik Yates, multi-instrumentalist of Hot Buttered Rum, sitting in with both Chris and Todd. Over the two nights, Erik switched between banjo, dobro and flute.
Oakdale CA is the self-titled Cowboy Capital Of The World, and Dying Breed Brewery sported a giant carved buffalo face behind the stage, so… with that name and imagery I thought, maybe, a one-off outing for the tour of Way Of The Buffalo? That was not to be, but there was no disappointment about that or anything else this three-day run. The beer at Dying Breed was fantastic, as was the early playing of two songs that mean probably the most to me in the Railroad Earth canon, Storms and Seven Story Mountain. Put the jubilant Fruitful Acre in the middle of that opening sandwich and what a fantastic trio of songs to kick off Todd’s portion of the show!
I was less familiar with the songs of Chris Thompson going in, but he quickly won me over with his own songwriting and his covers like the first night’s Quinn The Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn) as well as a variety of Grateful Dead covers performed in a unique and captivating style over the three days. Plus his overall energy, humor, and penchant for having a good time made the experience a super fun ride! After his portion ended he not only returned each night to play with Todd, but spent the time in between cruising the crowd and shooting video from both behind and in front of the stage. Chris is definitely someone who works and plays hard interchangeably!
It’s hard to pick favorite moments because there were so many. In Oakdale, the highly danceable songs that launched Todd’s set were rivaled by the sweet soft numbers like the traditional folk tune, Moonshiner, and the mysterious and captivating Mourning Flies. And of course, as previously remarked, it was a pleasure and a privilege to be there for the addition of the talented Erik Yates on four songs, including the aforementioned Moonshiner and a spacey jammed-out version of the Grateful Dead song, The Wheel.
The Sacramento show at Two Rivers Cider had a special magic to it, perhaps because, as Todd announced with a grin, it was the tour’s ‘Hump Day’ – show number 17, with 16 shows in the rear view mirror and 16 shows to go. Chris’s set included some of my favorites of his songs that I was quickly becoming acquainted with, including God Is Pink (a quote from his young daughter turned into a song). He also played a killer version of Neil Young’s Comes A Time that showcased his picking skills and got the crowd dancing early. One of the things so special about this night was the flowing in and out of upbeat dance songs into the sweeter, softer tunes, and how for the most part the crowd went with that flow, giving back whatever the required energy was from song to song and making it even better. Everyone was on their feet the entire show, either dancing together blissfully and whooping it up, or swaying and staying so quiet at key times that you could hear a pin drop. For this Earth Day show, we got a fantastic opener of one of my favorites, Peace On Earth, and quite a few others that you could interpret as being in the theme, including Mighty River, The Day Is Alive, Standing on the Corner and Black Bear. One of the jaw-droppers of the night was also clearly in the theme – Neil Young’s catalog was brought back into the show for a stunning performance of the timeless masterpiece, After The Gold Rush. This song showcased Todd’s sweet singing and harmonica playing, and the attention and emotion in the room was palpable, with people hanging on every note. The other highlight of the night was a rare, raucous rendition of Standing On The Corner for which Chris and Erik both joined in, Chris on bass this time and Erik jamming the banjo. This song, with its humorously apocalyptic theme and a refrain that repeats lines like “standing on the corner – watching the world go to hell” seemed particularly fitting for this somewhat industrial, urban space that was softened around the edges by the abundant glowing fire pits and the warm, loving crowd in attendance.
In addition to the Earth Day theme, two of tonight’s songs gave shout outs to the area’s local history. Hangtown Ball recalls the early days of what is now nearby Placerville and was initially Hangtown, a gold rush town that became known at the time for its notorious reputation as a haven of vigilante justice carried out by hangings. The song is sung through the eyes of long-gone characters, such as Abraham Bell who ‘came west in ’49… full of hope” and, he lets us know, “ended in the hangman’s rope” and Elias Cole, “tried by a drunken mob for a murder in the Jackal Saloon.” They’re all here with us tonight, getting’ full of liquor (or in this case, cider), swinging with the ladies and having an absolute Hangtown Ball.
Todd introduced the night’s closing song by saying he can’t come to Sacramento without playing this one: Jupiter And The 119, the triumphant story of two steam locomotives that together achieved the first Transcontinental Railroad in the 1860’s. It includes shout-outs to the Sierras and the Sacramento Yard, and showcases Todd’s captivating ability to turn history into jubilant song.
The next day we too, like the 119, rise into the Sierra Nevada Mountains, landing ourselves in Tahoe City, CA for show number three. It’s another great night with new friends, lots of dogs, mysterious large pine cones, and a terrific setting right on the edge of Lake Tahoe. Chilly once the sun begins to go down, so the upbeat launch into Todd’s set is a welcome thing! The opening trio of Long Way To Go, Hard Livin’, and Where Songs Begin gets us moving and warming up, as Todd sends melting guitar licks up to the heavens.
Much as I love to dance, I’m a sucker for the slow tunes and this show has a few that simultaneously make me smile deep down in my soul and bring a tear to my eye. The highlight of these is perhaps the lilting and lovely Said What You Mean, on which Todd’s vocals are particularly rich and moving. Or maybe Dover To Dunkirk, another bit of history turned song, which gets a rare outing. Or one of the two Johnnies… Spacey or In The Basement, historical songs in their own right born of Todd’s own past and family and friends. Well, good thing I don’t have to pick favorites! It’s really all so good, and only gets better when Chris rejoins the stage for a groovy, highly boogie-able, return-to-Earth-Day cover of Talking Heads’ Nothing But Flowers… you got it, you got it! Two other wonderful cover tunes will help to bring this night home – Woody’s Way Over Yonder In The Minor Key (brought to modern ears by Billy Bragg & Wilco) and Ola Belle Reed’s I’ve Endured to send us off. I always love the mix of his own marvelously crafted and performed songs with perfectly chosen covers that make up Todd’s shows because as much as he is a top-notch songwriter and singer of his own material, he interprets the songs of the greats who have come before with such depth and deftness that you feel they are also his, and ours. And so, while it was hard to leave the tour and head back to the working life for a week, I endured the hungover drive home with a heart full of joy and a healthy dose of anticipation for a few more shows up in Oregon in the days to come!
Todd Sheaffer @ Dying Breed Brewing Oakdale Ca 4/21/21
Storms, Fruitful Acre, Seven Story Mountain, Monkey, Real Country Dark, Lonecroft Farewell, Comin’ On Home (w Chris and Erilk Yates), Dirty Old Town (w Chris and Erik), The Wheel (w Chris and Erik), Moonshiner (w Chris and Erik), Mourning Flies, Old Man and the Land
Todd Sheaffer @ Two Rivers Ciders Sacramento, CA 4/22/21 Happy Earth Day!
Peace on Earth, Mighty River, The Day is Alive, Head, Hangtown Ball, Sun and Rain, Standing on the Corner (w/Chris & Erik Yates), Enjoy Yourself (w/ Chris & Erik), Black Bear (w/Chris & Erik), Tallahassee Trouble (w/Chris & Erik), After the Gold Rush, The Jupiter and the 119 E: Keep Movin’ On
Todd Sheaffer @ Moe’s Original BBQ Tahoe City 4/23/21
Long Way To Go, Hard Livin’, Where Songs Begin, Dover to Dunkirk, Said What You Mean, Kids Today, Charlie Loves Our Band (w/Chris), Spacey Johnny, In The Basement, Nothing But Flowers (w/Chris), Sometimes A River (w/Chris), Just A Man (w/Chris), Way Over Yonder In The Minor Key, I Only Want. Rain Dance E: I’ve Endured
WATCH “Standing on the Corner” from Sacramento, CA 4/22/21: