Words and Pics by Caroline Schwarz

Vista 222, Grants Pass OR, 10/13/2022

Once in a while you make a decision to do something and pretty quickly you have that feeling of part self-congratulation, part relief (OMG what if I had decided to skip this and work instead?!?), a feeling summed up as, “Damn I’m glad I did this! I’m smart!” Thus was my feeling as I drove out of the town of Grants Pass and into the Applegate Valley as sunset commenced, pulling into the welcoming haven of Vista 222 for Todd Sheaffer and Chris Thompson’s show. Getting out of my car and turning to look at the peach-colored blush of the sky over mountains ringing the vineyards, wandering up to the tasting room and then around the grounds sipping pinot noir, meeting people each one friendlier than the next, arriving for this show was like a giant hug, and I knew it would be a special night.

Chris Thompson began the proceedings, taking a stage adorned with one of the sweetest set-ups imaginable, with a wood backdrop featuring cut out hearts, strung with lights and surrounded by a jumble of pumpkins and candles. He sent his music soaring into the evening skies, a fine blend of his own original tunes including Pirate’s Cove and Sweet Giulia (during the latter song, sung to a little girl who’s lost her father, a small girl is standing in front of Chris transfixed, quite perfect!), and vintage covers including Rosalie McFall, Country Roads, Terrapin Station, and Comes A Time.

Soon Todd is up, and this crowd in hippie frocks and dreadlocks wastes no time getting down in a swirling, twirling fashion! Everyone knows all the words, everyone is dancing, appreciation and love are palpable in the air. One thing that makes this night special is how the words of the songs in Todd’s exquisitely selected set seem to paint living pictures of the night as it unfolds, starting with the perfect opener, Peace On Earth. Went to the valley at harvest time (we did!), gathered the grain and shared the wine (we are!) Joy sublime!

A couple of other songs about reverence for and connection with the earth and its places and inhabitants – Old Man And the Land and Hunting Song – follow soon in the set. It’s impossible not to sing along about liking the days and nights here, the summers and winters, without relating the words to the immense beauty of this place we are in right now. As the day slips into night there’s a sweet, earthy smell of hot dirt and pines cooling off and imparting fragrance to the dry air. Oh, and ganja. Sneaked in between these two songs paying earthly respect, the From Good Homes song Sunshine shouts out to a heavenly reflector of life-giving light. A charming little tune, it gives Todd a chance to go into his upper register and treat us to some grin-inducing vocal stretches as he acclaims, “You walk right in, you take the cake, you rise above it like a dream.”

As darkness falls fully we get a wonderful cover of Bob Dylan’s Shelter From The Storm. This is a rarer offering among the Bob songs that you’ll hear Todd play, and one of my favorites, so I’m thrilled to hear it. Another cover, Ola Belle Reed’s song, I’ve Endured, follows. I first heard this song through Tim O’Brien and thought it was his, and I remember the first time I heard Todd play it at a show. I asked him about it afterward, that first time, mentioning that I was familiar with it through Tim; Todd shook his fist at the ceiling in mock fury declaring, “Damn you, O’Brien, always stealing my material!” and gave one of those great Todd belly laughs.

A sweet and lilting Real Love winds up this stretch of Todd solo songs and Chris comes back on stage to join. We get a couple lively dance tunes for this now heavily grooving crowd: When The Sun Gets In Your Blood and Bringing My Baby Back Home. There has been no shortage of youngsters running, rolling, and jumping around in front of the stage, which has surely inspired the latter song. At its conclusion one little one in particular is bouncing and clapping and Todd asks, “You think the baby liked it?” and then “Alriiiiight!” in response to an affirmative reply. Someone makes a comment about the music being “toddler approved” and out of that comes the brilliant idea (though in fairness it’s been thought of before!) of a fan base nomenclature for Todd fans, a la Deadheads or Bobcats… the Toddlers! Onesies for babies and adults alike are definitely called for…time to resurrect that logo, Dr. Zaius.

The Pink Floyd song Breathe is mystical and majestic and another song that feels perfect under these big clear skies. The psychedelic style is carried through to Bird In A House, with impressively intense guitar jams from both Todd and Chris. The love and necessity of nature theme is returned to with a very heartwarming Favorite Spot off the latest Railroad Earth album, and a Grandfather Mountain that crescendos with a winding jam that takes us out of the song and sets it down so sweetly. It’s one of those times I’m kind of amazed to realize this is one man with a guitar up here creating all these layers of melody and words and swirling tones that wrap around us.

We’re getting toward the end of this long and wonderful show and it’s a nice spot for Lovin’ You to come along. Todd’s got this front row full of amazing women, many of whom I’m so happy to have met during the course of the last few hours: Crashly, Katrina, Ava, Holly, Nicole – others, no doubt!  It really was a night of beautiful sisters. At the end of Lovin’ You one of them declares, “I need a cigarette after that one!” and Todd replies, “Atta girl!” It’s a funny moment. As if to defy the fact that things need to come to an end soon, the harmonica is back on and we get an energetic Long Way To Go and everyone is swinging and singing along.

On a night like this you have to have a final song with both guys on stage though, and I’m delighted to hear them starting one that’s very close to my heart and the second Bob Dylan song of the night, You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere. This song has been sort of a magical song to me and featured in some special life moments, and now tonight’s will get added to that roster. Todd remarks to me in a smooth aside and chuckle right as he is gonna start singing that it’s “For the president.” Which is me, of the Bob Dylan Fan Club, and not Joe Biden, in case you were wondering. At the close of the song everyone is singing repeated refrains of, “Oo Ee ride me high, tomorrow’s the day my bride’s a-gonna come, Oh oh, are we gonna fly, down in the easy chair!” and we keep singing it as Todd and Chris unplug and then play themselves off the stage and into the shadows.

Humboldt Brewery, Arcata CA, 10/14/2022

When a night as splendid as last night is over it’s always with some sadness that you let it go and slip into the past tense – and it’s always helpful to have another show to help with the comedown. This time it’s not only helpful but also convenient! If you know me at all you know I travel far and wide to see the musicians I love, so it is a welcome opportunity to be actually going home to see Todd and Chris play again, this time at Humboldt Brewery in Arcata, 15 minutes from my house.

Chris warms up the proceedings with a few of my favorite tunes, including Honky Tonk Singalong and a song I got to request, Free Dog. He puts me on the spot for that request, but I rise to the occasion. He also plays one of my best-loved Dead songs, Brown Eyed Women, with the oh-so appropriate line indicating that he knows where he is, “tumble down shack in Big Foot county.” I cheer. You gotta cheer for Big Foot.

Todd is also perceptive in terms of what needs to be played, and he impeccably tailors a show to this lighter than usual but extremely attentive and appreciative crowd. My friend Pumpkin made a comment when she saw the set list I posted, saying that it looked ‘dreamy,’ and I told her that I would likely steal that descriptor. And I am. Because it’s true. Every night with Todd is different, every night is top-notch, and each has its own character; this one is dreamy. If the show at Vista 222 matched the scene and the crowd with a set that was expansive and jubilant, our foggy little town is treated to a show that feels so intimate, cozy, and dreamy. 

With people heading down to Hangtown next weekend in the audience, we get a good dose of Railroad Earth songs to get things going (after an always welcome Where Songs Begin opener) including a fun Dandelion Wine and Good Life.

I’m always excited to see the harp come out, and this time it is accompanied by a pop quiz to the audience about the rising cost of harmonicas, which I definitely failed (about $105 for two recently, in case you’re wondering). Well, I’m glad he invested in them because the harmonica is key on the next two songs; Spacey Johnny is where the show really takes off for me and the full-on dreaminess begins. It is followed by one of my all-time favorites, the first Railroad Earth song I ever heard and one that immediately provided a transformative experience and made me understand something I was going through at that very moment, Seven Story Mountain. All the times I’ve seen Todd solo it’s rare that I’ve heard this one. Getting it here at the home town show is meaningful and fills my heart.

Next up is Todd’s always lovely rendition of Peggy-O. Butterfly And The Tree and Black Bear, both with Chris joining in, make effective counterpoints for songs with very different depictions of nature, with the first feeling loose and summery and the latter singing of quieter times of north woods hibernation and awakening. The spaces between the notes during Black Bear have as much impact as the notes themselves, and the same is true a couple songs on when Todd treats us to a fantastic run of Ferris Wheel Waltz, Captain Nowhere (with harmonica) and Keep Movin’ On. My favorite moments of the whole show probably come during Ferris Wheel and Captain Nowhere. In both these songs there is such a building up, a swelling of sound, interspersed with pauses that are equally intense, an ebb and flow of sound that takes everyone in the pin-drop quiet audience right along on the ride. Everyone is so attentive it is like a collective holding of breath as Todd tells these mystical stories and we all hang on each note and word. The romantic round-and-round of Ferris Wheel Waltz, the explosive harmonica bursts on Captain Nowhere… Todd is a master at painting pictures with his songs and these two are prime examples. Keep Movin’ On is musical comfort food and we eat it up. As if to reward us for our rapt attention on these last three songs, we get one at the end where we all get to sing and yell along, a happy and boisterous release, with a hardy and crowd-pleasing Head to wrap things up and send us on our way until next time!