Words: Caroline Schwarz; Photos: David P. Tracer (Tracer Rock Photography- TRP)
They say good things come in threes, and they came in triple triplicates for me these past few weeks – seeing three different runs of three shows in a row on the Todd and Chris spring 2021 tour. Triply good! The third third, in Colorado, was perhaps the funnest of all, with high altitude views in places never visited before, surprise songs, request songs, surprise request songs, and both dear and new friends along for the venture.
First stop, Frisco! 5/6/21
What a lovely and lively night at 10 Mile Music Hall. Tyler, our 10 Mile host, couldn’t have been nicer, welcoming us in early and expressing his excitement about putting on live shows again. He worked hard all night, seating people and delivering rounds of drinks; he is a musician, too, and sits in on bass during Chris’s set. The show tonight is notable for its energy and hilarity shared between stage and audience. The people were primed for a good time and the music delivered!
I love it when unspoken requests happen and this one was bound to: Walk Beside Me. The Tim O’Brien song had been debuted on the tour in Salt Lake City two nights prior; I was sad to have missed it and pulling for it to make another outing here. And it does, early in the show, getting an inevitable cheer from the crowd at the line about seeing you in the Rocky Mountains, which are looming large and sunset-glowing behind this patio stage.
I can’t help but feel a bit like Jupiter And The 119 is for me, with smiling shout-outs to California and Sacramento, from which I made a last-minute journey to these shows. Todd asks that we sing along on this one, instructing us on where to chime in on the “whooo whooo” part. The singalong vibe persists throughout the show and becomes something of a theme; handily, there are other songs where the words are the same (“whoo,” that is). “I’m keeping it real simple for ya,” Todd assures us. So we “whoo” along on Sunshine, a sweet little song where Todd goes way up in his range, and that also has the fun synchronicity of being played just exactly when the last little bit of sunshine is all but gone yet magically lingering, just glowingly capping the tallest peaks that are our ornamental backdrop tonight.
Chris is called back to the stage a song or two sooner than usual tonight and their kick-off collaboration of Chuck Berry’s Let It Rock does just that! From here on out it’s a grooving, dancing crowd that fills this patio under the Colorado sky. Black Elk Speaks and Storms provide ample opportunities for rhythmic beats and winding jams that unite musicians and audience in revelry. But it’s the surprise outing of Jack Hardy’s The Drinking Song that makes for a rowdy second theme of the evening: “Let’s stop!… Have another round! To help us make the next verse go down.” As if we needed the encouragement! We follow orders well and, at each juncture between verses of this song there is toasting and drinking both on stage and off before being allowed to continue. We don’t let it end with this song either, taking it upon ourselves to repeat the directive to “Stop! Have another round” periodically throughout the rest of the night, at whatever break in the action or in between songs seems appropriate (or not!), and everyone obliges.
There are two songs tonight off the latest Railroad Earth creation, as yet unreleased due to Covid – get that album a vaccine so it can come out! Running Wild, with mentions of mountains and a winding groove, flows seamlessly into the course of the evening. An extremely rare performance of the gorgeous All For The Song is played, generated by a past request from super-fan and photographer, David; we are all blessed to hear this one. Stunning in its quiet beauty, it is one of those perfect, self-reflective songs, an ode to our shared musical journey and the majesty and sadness of life itself. “If I told you all about it your head would spin, all the places that we’ve been…aren’t we lucky, yes we’re lucky, to be alive… “ It’s all for the moment, and this is one moment that I stand unbelieving of how lucky I am to be here.
A couple of always-welcome Railroad Earth classics, Mighty River and Long Way To Go, round out this memorable evening. The latter has Chris back on stage; it is preceded by a tremendous cover of Grateful Dead’s The Wheel. I like the thematic wrap here that seems to set us up for the rest of this three-day ride: bound to cover just a little more ground and we’ve still got a long way to go. Which is it? A little more, or a long way? Both, I guess! Tonight is one I won’t forget… well, except for the parts I’ll forget due to the repeated occurrence of “have another round!” It’s the kind of night where an on-the-house parting shot is provided by Tyler, unneeded but gratefully accepted, and a nearby stranger will grab my notebook to write a message I’ll discover two days later that begins with, “Y’all are absolutely beautiful as fuck!!”
Baker’s Acres, Steamboat CO 5/7/21
Waking up a bit bleary today there is a feeling of, “How can tonight’s show top last night?” But it is a fact of how these things go that often the top shows are followed by yet another topper. Or rather, one of equal magic because really, every show is different and every show is special. Tonight’s brims undeniably with an abundance of special, starting with the stupendous setting in a high field on top of a mountain. Props to Live Out Front for ferreting out these unlikely yet perfect situations for staging a show and bringing the music!
Always a keen observer of his surroundings, I’ve gotta believe that Todd’s fun and upbeat opener of Give That Boy A Hand is at least in part inspired by the ‘cow pies’ dotting our dance area: “Stepping in brown stuff ain’t no big disgrace!” A bit later in the evening a fellow dancer will tap me on the shoulder and caution me that there is a dead mouse just behind me, in case I want to avoid stepping on it – file that under things I’ve never had someone say to me at a show before!
The mountain theme is prevalent in song tonight, with an early-played version of one of my favorites, Seven Story Mountain. I love the chance to hear this tune both stripped down and at the same time filled up with harmonica. It’s been windy with a bit of a cloud-filled sky but now, at the close of the day, the sun peers through a break between clouds and the rim of the mountain range, filtering a golden light that has Todd turning around and jamming at times to the sunset. The setting is perfect for an Old Man And The Land for this is truly a place of beauty, and Little Bit O’ Me calls up images of windy, high ridges and even the pounding beat of the buffalo run.
Time for a bit of a comic interlude, as someone mentions to Todd that the stage lighting is turning his pants green then red then purple. Taking a minute to figure out what they are talking about, Todd then follows up their comment by quipping, “You oughtta see my underwear!” Some cheeky banter ensues, with some in the audience calling his bluff and him warning several times, “Don’t tempt me!” It’s all very amusing and happily leads into what one can only imagine is an in-the-moment decision to play the rarely offered-up song, A Gift. His deadpanning of the line, “I am a gift to the women of this world,” and others including, “Responsibility sits hard on my shoulders, like a good wine I’m better as I get older,” are met with enthusiastic hoots and cheers, and then a rejoinder from Todd of, “Why you laughing?!” Laughter aside, I doubt there is a woman or a man here who would disagree!
This lighthearted song notwithstanding, tonight’s show is defined by a cavalcade of heavy hitters that during the latter portion come fast on each other’s heels. We get an epic Rain Dance; a stupendous Captain Nowhere with Todd blasting harmonica, and the guitar solo of the century from Chris; a jaw-dropping Into The Mystic that showcases what a strong, heartfelt vocalist Todd is. Within the run of songs that has Chris on stage, I’m surprised and delighted to realize they are going into True Love, a raucous tune that reminds me a bit of something that could have come off Bob Dylan & The Band’s The Basement Tapes, with its fanciful imagery and a rowdy spirit. At first I’m floored that it’s being played as I’ve been secretly wanting this one since I embarked on the tour – until I’m reminded that there is nothing secret about it since I was shouting out for it multiple times in Frisco last night. Ah, the little details that slip ones mind when you are “having another round” frequently throughout the night. In any case, I’m glad they waited a day because they did a great job working it out; it is tightly played with some tasty solos handed back and forth and a great groove.
A return to the mountain theme brings Cold Mountain and Mountain Time. The first in this duo is another request that waited for just the right moment. It is a rarity, and is Todd’s musical telling of the story behind the collection of 1200 year old poems of Han Shan, a Buddhist poet who wandered the countryside and carved his poems in the rocks. The song’s driving force and rhythm conjures up not just the poet’s heartbeat but the heartbeat of the universe, exciting, mysterious and joyful.
The show is brought to a wonderfully turbulent close with a smokin’ All Along The Watchtower, a song I’ve heard often as a closer but not from these two. It suits this mountaintop just fine and whips the crowd into a delighted dancing frenzy one last time.
Bowing and Twirling On The Tour’s Closing Night in Castle Rock 5/8/21
It’s a night of high emotion and bittersweet songs on this last night of the tour at McAwesome Ranch in Castle Rock. We arrive early as always, only to find out that the show is delayed for a couple of hours due to RV troubles as well as traffic troubles over Loveland Pass. This partying crowd doesn’t really mind the wait much though. Everyone seems primed for hanging out and having a good time and the anticipation only serves to make the show sweeter. For me it’s also a chance to catch up with old friends I haven’t seen in a few years, as some Denver / Boulder area locals who didn’t make it up to the mountains are here. When the boys arrive in their rented Subaru Outback it is to a full welcome party of cheering fans tailgating outside the barn; Todd emerges from the car and shakes a triumphant fist in the air. Both guys will later thank us from the stage for our patience, and for greeting them with cheers instead of thrown objects. The only thing we’re throwin’ here is a party!
Chris Thompson plays a heartfelt, moving set tonight. It includes one of my favorite songs of his, When The Sun Comes Out. Written during this pandemic experience it is about loving what you have and missing what you don’t, but trusting that it will return. There are also a few tribute songs to friends no longer here, one that I have not heard before called Julia, written for the daughter of a friend who died in a climbing accident. Chris has a way with words and melody, and it brings the first of a few tears to my eye for the night. I’ve so enjoyed becoming acquainted with his music on this tour and I look forward to hearing more in days ahead.
When Todd takes the stage the audience is primed and his opener, It’s So Good, hits all the right chords. Not only is the sentiment, “It’s so good, to be here again, it’s so good to see a friendly face, it’s so good to be here again, with all of my friends, in one place!” uncannily spot-on (for a song that was in fact written before we couldn’t all see each other for so long), but the verses about wheels falling off and traffic delays en route to where you gotta be make it all the more humorously apt tonight!
Take A Bow slides perfectly into the emotional space conjured up by Chris’s set, the circle of life and death and the blessing and beauty of it all. The melody is lilting and there is a reverence to it that I love and that always makes me cry. I love the incorporated Shakespeare reference of “all the world’s a stage,” as well as the hearkening back to an old Irish blessing: “May the road rise up to meet you, may the wind be at your back.” Those things make me feel connected to past humanity and the one thing we all have to face. Tonight it is also a song with multiple levels of meaning, because this dynamic musical duo is quite literally exiting their stage after over a month of shows in a row, no breaks… the curtain is closing. May I say you played it well!
But wait, there’s a whole show to go first! And what a good one it is. Even on my 9th show for the tour there are new songs and surprises, including a floating and perfectly played Real Love that has people swirling next to each other, dancing in each others arms (we can do that now!) and smiling widely. The haunting, nostalgic and mysterious Scudders Lane makes a rare appearance by request. But not everything strikes notes of the wonderful and inevitable sadness that is part of life. There is lots of rocking revelry too. When someone remarks that a woman in the audience wants to twirl Todd commands, “Well twirl then! Twirl on your head!” And then, “That reminds me of a song…” and we get a rather psychedelic Head to get the joint jumping, complete with the appropriate ad lib, “Twirl on my own head, twirl on my own head!” A second dedication, this time for a birthday, is a rowdy and crowd-pleasing Mess; with sharp and vibrating guitar notes that drip with Todd’s unique, rich tone, it’s a song that showcases his power as a one-man band. His choice of notes and the rhythm he plays manages to be at the same time perfectly spare and as full as a whole universe of music.
Good as Todd is on his own, no one ever argues with the return of Chris to the stage, and the run of songs he joins in on tonight are particularly enthralling. We go old school for the appropriate (we’re in a barn) 2nd Red Barn On The Right, a jubilant bounce-and-sing-along tune. We get an equally suitable, for those of us who have been driving over it and in some cases getting stuck on it, Great Divide. Talking Heads’ Nothing But Flowers is a fun and funny dance number that has Todd hamming it up and cracking up between just about every verse. But before that there is a breather that is one of the pinnacles of the night: a mesmerizing Black Bear. This song takes this otherwise ready-to-rage crowd way down, into its hypnotic melody, its images and story, and at almost twelve minutes long, is graced by a softly wandering, psychedelic guitar solo from Todd, followed by a powerful solo from Chris that drives the song to its end.
Hunting Song, Railroad Earth, Genesis, Grandfather Mountain. All keep themes of life, death and nature in square view. The time’s come for us to part. But, oh, mama ain’t it good to be alive! The rafters ring with shared song. Chris is called back up for the last song, and a gratitude that we all feel is expressed from Todd to him for the tour. “Mother, mother…” begins the final number on this day before Mother’s Day. The smooth and powerful cover of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On closes out the tour and is perfect for the night and for the times.
Todd Sheaffer @ 10 Mile Music Hall 5/6/21 Railroad Earth, Bringing My Baby Back Home, Walk Beside Me, The Jupiter and the 119, Sunshine, Blues, Let It Rock (w/Chris), The Drinking Song (w/Chris), Black Elk Speaks (w/Chris), Storms (w/Chris), All For the Song, Genesis, Running Wild E1: Mighty River, The Wheel (w/Chris) E2: Long Way to Go (w/Chris)
Todd Sheaffer @ Bakers Acres Steamboat Springs, CO 5/7/21 Give That Boy A Hand, Seven Story Mountain, The Old Man and The Land, Little Bit O’ Me, A Gift, Didn’t We Have a Night, Rain Dance, Peggy-O, RV (w/Chris), True Love (w/Chris), Captain Nowhere (w/Chris), Into The Mystic (w/Chris), Cold Mountain, Mountain Time, Been Down This Road E: Colorado, All Along the Watchtower (w/Chris)
Todd Sheaffer @ McAwesome Ranch Castle Rock, CO 5/8/21 It’s So Good, The Jupiter and The 119, Real Love, Take A Bow, Head, I Am A Mess, Scudders Lane, 2nd Red Barn on the Right (w/Chris), The Great Divide (w/Chris), Black Bear (w/Chris), Nothing But Flowers (w/Chris), The Hunting Song, Genesis, Railroad Earth E: Grandfather Mountain, What’s Going On (w/Chris)