You remember when your stoner-friend convinced you to see Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, saying it was a bluegrass band that jammed like jazzbos? That was a bum steer. But the same guy, if he hasn’t already done so, is getting ready to tell you about Railroad Earth. The New Jersey-based band’s gained significant traction during its decade’s long career, hitting festivals in Telluride and just about anywhere else patchouli and moonshine are scents lingering in the air. Being northerners in a game that was, at one time, about hailing from the South hasn’t proved problematic. Railroad Earth, since its inception, has slowly insinuated more and more rock elements into its sound, eventually arriving at a soft country-rock sound with attendant string instruments. Auld time flair remains at the band’s core—“Drag Him Down,” from 2002’s “Bird in a House” cops “Cold Wind and Rain” pretty immediately in its vocal melody. Over five studio albums, “Been Down This Road” sounds the least forced. Todd Sheaffer’s relaxed vocals aren’t in a key too high for him to handle–and the pacing doesn’t parallel NASCAR, but rather breezy drives through country hills the Jersey natives are used to. Unfortunately, the song, which really should have wound up hitting charts in a heavy way, gets lost amid fare like “Lone Croft Farewell,” from the band’s self titled effort, accidentally sounding like Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’.” And since one Tom Petty’s enough, hearing acoustic bands ape his schtick seems superfluous. On that same album, though, Railroad Earth sounds as if it’s forging a proper balance between string band stuff and individual members’ listening habits—“Too Much Information,” after purging reggae’s beat from its heart, turns in some fluid mandolin lines. Going to see the band can’t be much different from seeing any cosmopolitan country act. At least ticket prices don’t reflect that. (Dave Cantor)
January 28 at the House of Blues, 329 North Dearborn, (312)923-2000, 7:30pm. $22.50, $25 dos. 17+.