Thirteen Years Into Its Career, Railroad Earth Is At the Top of Its Game

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Last of the Outlaws is, in a way, Railroad's most ambitious unveiling to date: The songs weren't in the live rotation. The band explored new approaches (including a lot more piano courtesy of mandolin virtuoso John Skehan), and of course, there's the 21-minute suite ("All That's Dead May Live Again/Face With a Hole") that destroys the adage that a band who jams can't carry it into the studio.

"It's the first time we've kind of explored that as an album idea," explains Sheaffer, "creating improvisational sections between songs, between set musical pieces." The suite has multiple sections and multiple instrument changes, and it's a testament to the band members' skill that they were able to create it for an album. It feels essential that the studio let in a lot of sunlight.

"The Last of the Outlaws," written with drummer Carey Harmon, was originally "The Last of the Cowboys," but that was never going to work. Then it was "The Last of the Apaches," because Sheaffer was familiar with the story of Geronimo, one of the last Native American holdouts who fought being reined into a reservation, but that seemed overly specific.

"It's written from the perspective of people worried about somebody, and concerned about somebody and missing somebody," Sheaffer explains. "The stories have to come from the inside out, not from the outside in."

His prose seems to be more at home at the land's end, that ethereal space where history meets eternal emotion. His lyrics are part storytelling and always poetic, and on this latest effort, the title track, sparse and slow, epitomizes that.

That image of longing, of nights spent away, of love, of history, of responsibility, and all the weight those feelings carry with them, speak for the entire album. From the upbeat "Chasin' a Rainbow" to "When the Sun Gets in Your Blood," the album never stops looking west. Last of the Outlaws carries with it the tension for those who find solace in the image of the train. A hobo's life, after all, is lived on the open road. 

Railroad Earth 8 p.m. Saturday, January 17. The Pageant, 6161 Delmar Boulevard. $22.50 to $25. 314-726-6161.

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