Words & photos by Caroline Schwarz
There are a few themes that weave themselves throughout these opening three days of Todd Sheaffer and Chris Thompson’s upper Midwest spring tour – I mean, other than the overarching theme of getting to listen to and spend time around two of the sweetest, most talented and charismatic guys in show business!
One prominent link between the days is the presence and company of old friends. I have some of my own at the shows, including one that I haven’t seen in close to 30 years! Everyone I bring is a newcomer to both Todd and Chris, either entirely or with a little familiarity from Todd’s live streams, and it’s so fun and gratifying to be helping to turn them into new fans! Since Chris hales from these parts, he has high school buddies and even his parents at the first show, in Minneapolis, where there is a particular sense of intimacy and camaraderie. As Todd puts it when he takes the stage, “I feel like I’m in Chris’s living room!”
Hook And Ladder, Minneapolis MN, 4/27/2022
Chris is joined by three fantastic local players for his set tonight: Harrison Olk on banjo, Chris Forsberg on fiddle, and Joe Barron on bass. His jam-packed opening set positively rocks, with winding, psychedelic-bluegrassy takes on Grateful Dead tunes like Brown Eyed Women and Cassidy; a boisterous cover of Johnny Cash’s Big River; and his own lovingly sung songs like the touching Sweet Giulia and God Is Pink. It is a set of music that features high-spirited, expert playing from guys you can tell have jammed together before, and leaves me in a bit of awe that it is merely one half of the night’s offerings!
Todd’s set includes some upbeat jams like Jupiter And The 119, during which I get the pleasure of a pointed look and laugh with raised eyebrows on the “Off from California!” line, having made the trek here from that state where I am more familiar; Todd introduces this song saying he felt that Railroad Earth needed a train song so he wrote a song with TWO trains for “double the fun!” Other rockers are Hard Livin’, and It’s So Good, with its appropriate-to-the-occasion lines about reuniting with old friends.
But much of what Todd gives us tonight feels like the perfect counterpoint to the exuberant group performance that started things off: a selection of quiet, thoughtful, tender tunes sung with precision and sweetness to a pin-drop quiet audience. We get a Ferris Wheel Waltz to open, a song that captures the quietly dizzying rush of youthful life and love, where the music quite literally takes us on a ride as we go up-up-up, and down-down-down. At the start of the rarely played Skinny Man a few songs in, Todd questions himself for a moment at the inclusion of another waltz in the set (“pretty waltzy”) but, no need to. We can take it. The sweetest of the sweetly sung tunes is the lilting and ethereal Passing Through, which feels like it has the audience holding its collective breath it is so spellbinding and mesmerizing.
We welcome Chris back to the stage for Came Up Smiling, but need to do a take two as after a few bars Todd notes, “This would work with a fiddle and a banjo, too!” and they are joined by Chris Forsberg and Harrison Olk for a fun romp through the tune.
They all stay up for RV, and then Chris Thompson alone accompanies on an out-of-this-world rendition of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On? The interweaving of vocal and instruments on this is perfect, with Todd’s repeated heartfelt imploring of “TALK to me!” and it just slides together with an intensity and feeling that could keep going and going and no one would care. I feel like everyone is really blown away by this one, like there’s a bit of awed silence at the end before hearty applause bring Todd back out for a perfect closer to gently set it down for the night, his lovely and inspiring version of Sam Cooke’s Keep Movin’ On.
Trempealeau Hotel, Restaurant and Saloon, Trempealeau WI, 4/28/2022
Of course the other theme that wends along with this tour is that big river that I follow on my drive today, taking the path of the renowned Highway 61 along the banks of the Mississippi, to land in what is most certainly the smallest population town to which I’ve ever traveled for live music, the lost-in-time destination of Trempealeau, Wisconsin. There would be no way to know this place existed without coming here, and I’m so glad I did! The hotel, with its old wooden floors, windows lining the length of the room that overlook the Mississippi River a few yards away (the only thing in between is a still very active railroad track with a train that pounds by every ½ hour or so, enhancing the ambiance), and long dark wood bar at the back serving seemingly everyone in attendance what is evidently the official drink of Wisconsin, the Old Fashioned.
Chris comments how playing music while looking out at the river makes him think of learning Grateful Dead songs growing up and we get fabulous versions of Eyes Of The World and a rare Dire Wolf (great north country song!) mixed into his set. Todd seems influenced by the fabulous setting and view as well, and we’re treated to a number of tunes that echo themes of connection to the natural world, like Old Man And The Land to open and, a bit along in the set, The Good Life and Hunting Song, with its driving intensity. Though chairs are down, there is plenty of space to get up and swing and sway without blocking anyone’s view, and I do so with a newfound hobo friend for many of the songs. However, when Todd announces he’s gonna “send one out to Caroline” I dutifully resume my spot in the front row to soak in every note and word of Bob Dylan’s Girl Of The North Country. The accompanying harmonica notes lend as much as the words to this bittersweet remembrance of a long-ago love and it is, as always, perfect.
Harmonica, in fact, is a key component of this evening, with Todd playing it on what seems like half or more of the songs with many inspired solos. As an introduction to Girl Of The North Country, Todd made mention of what I told him earlier this evening – that this morning I’d had a surprise opportunity and found myself, before leaving Minneapolis, in the very studio where Bob Dylan recorded Blood On The Tracks. Todd remarked that he wished he could have been there – and, while that sure would have been nice, perhaps he didn’t need to be because any inspiration he could have derived from that studio, which heard some of Bob’s most emotive and heartfelt harmonica playing, seems already here, welling up, swirling around, and dripping from the rafters, from Todd’s own harp in a rack around his neck.
Walk On By, a haunting song that seems to reference an emergence from disaster into a post-apocalyptic world, is quite literally a show-stopper, leaving us all in rapt silence for a good few seconds after its closure. Todd’s amazingly affective voice conveys simultaneously all the notions of tragedy, hope, humanity and frailty contained in this mysterious song, and his harmonica moans along. We shake off the trance with a couple lighter songs, including the darkly hilarious Do You Remember (Charlie Rose)? which Todd introduces as “from a simpler time when all we really had to worry about was serial killers” and “a very romantic song… no, it’s definitely not.” His powers of expression go 180 degrees as now he is like a stand up comedian delivering lines about Donahue and how the guy next door, who was such a nice guy and never tense, went off the deep end. Details about the dirty dungeon and the bloody whip followed by light and airy la-la-la’s. It has us rolling and has Todd pausing mid-verse once to ask with feigned indignance, “What are you laughing at?!” I can’t help but blurt, “It’s just so romantic!” Of course not many of Todd’s songs are straight-up one way or another, and this parody of modern culture and 80s sensationalist reporting winds its way into a semi-serious litany of what we can blame it all on, including a sense of loss no one can name and the way we celebrate his name, both relatable and relevant in our current times, and fades out with the ambivalent recitation of the guy-next-door-turned-culprit’s name.
For a “for real this time” romantic song, Lost In Your Powers is a superior pick. Played quietly to this quiet audience, again alongside transportive harmonica, it takes me somewhere intimate and full of reverent desire. And speaking of being taken somewhere else, an unmistakably strummed intro takes us into a powerful Captain Nowhere where we delve into the shared and repeated query, “Where we going to?” Chris joins on bass for a dance-worthy Like A Buddha, then this portion of the night is lovingly capped by a sweetly sung and strummed, Sing For Me, a traditional tune that seems made to be performed inside walls like these which, while not a church, are surely blessed and holy. How dear to my heart, how precious the moment, seems the most fitting of refrains.
And we’ll stay side by side, singing a song, passing instruments, drinking (Old Fashioneds, what else?), making friends, for the next several hours at the historic saloon: patrons, performers, owners, bartenders, all partaking and participating. A night of more warmth and magic I’ve rarely known. Lots of traditional songs, a rousing Not Fade Away, Chris’s oh-so appropriate-to-the-setting song, Honkytonk Singalong. Todd treats us to Running Wild. I’ll even get up and sing lead on (what else?) a Bob Dylan song! I remember all the words to You Ain’t Going Nowhere and I think I do alright; the hardest part is knowing when to come back in verse to verse, as there is plenty of great picking in between, and I feel I do so too early once or twice. Chris, however, graciously explains that it is actually a bluegrass timing thing to come in a measure early so, uh, yeah… I did it on purpose!
Appleton Beer Factory, Appleton WI, 4/29/2022
The last stop for me on the tour is at the Appleton Beer Factory, a warm spot with a kind owner, Mark (who lets me have the extra show poster), and tasty brews. Chris’s set tonight is soaring and joy-filled, with some of my very favorites that he does, including Neil Young’s Comes A Time, Catfish John (in honor of the Friday night fish fries, another Wisconsin tradition I’ve learned about on this trip), and an assortment of some his own tunes that I love the best, The Road Ahead, Free Dog and When The Sun Comes Out.
Todd’s set kicks off with a run of classic tunes: the thematically appropriate and always welcome jam, Mighty River, into old favorites Dandelion Wine, Lovin’ You, and Where Songs Begin. It is a selection of tunes out the gates that illuminates what solid songwriting prowess this man has. I always dig the rarer, oddball songs, and we get one next with the really fun Dance A Hole. An even rarer song follows a couple later – Nothing But Love. I’m feeling emotional tonight as my fun little trip winds down, and this song brings to mind people and situations that make me mist up a little. How could a song that Todd wrote about some long ago person and situation echo so perfectly a way that I feel? He is a master at taking the personal and autobiographical and turning it into songs that can be felt so keenly. He’ll do this to me again tonight when he closes his set with Take A Bow. I’ve been carrying some fresh, heavy news with me all week, about a friend and her family and a terrible situation. Throughout my wanderings it’s been at the back of my mind the whole way, poking up here and there; hearing this song now, about about a life well-lived winding down and all the value and beauty in that, brings it all to the surface and I find myself sobbing with overwhelming feelings of both sorrow and joy.
We get the great pleasure of Chris lending his special magic to a long run of Todd’s songs tonight. Black Bear is always one of my favorites to hear them play together, their riffs traded back and forth adding depth and embellishing the mysterious tapestry of the song. The highlight of the night for me though is Blues Highway. It’s a song off the newly released Railroad Earth album, All For The Song, and I’ve had it in my head (and playing in my car) all week. The Blues Highway is, of course, U.S. Hwy 61, which runs from upper Minnesota down to New Orleans. Though we’ve been riding down the opposite end of the highway than what’s sung about here, and the rain that ‘keeps pouring in buckets coming down’ will hold off until tomorrow, there is much thematic resonance! We get an exuberantly jammed out version of this tune that shouts out to that old mighty, mighty river, with first Chris then Todd lending killer solos between the verses. And with the lines, “Flying off, goin’ home, early in the morning,” the connection is personal, as that’s what I’ll be doing… “Ooohh, sure is hard, sure is hard to say goodbye – oh looooorrd!”
Hook And Ladder Mission Room, Minneapolis MN 4/27/22
Ferris Wheel Waltz
Jupiter And The 119
It’s So Good
Came Up Smiling (w Chris and other locals on banjo and violin)
RV (w Chris and other locals on banjo and violin)
What’s Going On (w Chris)
E: Keep Movin On
Trempealeau Hotel, Restaurant And Saloon Trempealeau WI 4/28/22
Old Man And The Land
Long Way To Go
Mary, Don’t You Weep
The Good Life
Girl Of The North Country
Walk On By
Do You Remember? (Charlie Rose)
Lost In Your Powers
Like A Buddha (w Chris on bass)
E: Sing For Me
Appleton Beer Factory, Appleton WI, 4/29/22
Where Songs Begin
Dance A Hole
Nothing But Love
When The Sun Gets In Your Blood (w Chris)
Black Bear (w Chris)
Blues Highway (w Chris)
Enjoy Yourself (w Chris)
Take A Bow
E: Nothing But Flowers (w Chris)