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Wowie zowie: Railbird in their natural habitat.

Photo: Leif Zurmuhlen

Skylarking

Saratoga band Railbird harness the mystical power of imagination

By Josh Potter

The way bassist Ben Davis sees it, the band Railbird are “like a rollercoaster in the sky, and there are clouds, but the car on the rollercoaster has feathers. And we’re all conductors. It takes us wherever we need to go, but it doesn’t go upside-down because there are no . . . like . . . straps.”

Davis sets down his upright bass and moves with a manic stride to the piano in the dining room of his parents’ Saratoga house. He’s already dressed in the red wig and terry-cloth exercise get-up that is his alter-ego, Philip, in the comedy side project he and singer Sarah Pedinotti have, called Fit Club. In an hour or so, the two will be leaving for One Caroline Street, Pedinotti’s family’s restaurant, where she first began as a performer and continues to play with various ensembles. Until then, the members of Railbird sit around the Davis house “like it’s some high-school party” going over new material. Drummer Chris Carey plays a progression on ukulele for guitarist Chris Kyle to follow on a slack-key-sounding Dobro, and the family dog inexplicably begins rubbing its butt across the carpet.

“I thought it did go upside-down,” yells Pedinotti from the other room, where she’s busy transforming into Lulu, Philip’s sister. In Fit Club, the two allow themselves full creative license to do the thing they do nearly as well as the music they make: improvise long, digressive dialogues based on audience prompts, as a bickering sibling team from Boston—or maybe New Jersey. Sometimes this involves a musical exercise bike and a cameo appearance from their manager Bernie, played by guitarist James Gascoyne.

Davis looks stumped. “I think it only goes upside-down when you’re driving,” says Carey, and Kyle illustrates the dumb punch line with a wonky slide riff.

Sarah and Ben may, in this case, be the ones posing as relatives, but whenever Railbird assemble, it seems, they are as siblings. Rather than say what they’ve been reading or listening to, they’ll say what kind of music they hate—Christmas carols, especially those performed by Alvin and the Chipmunks—and what they haven’t read, like The Satanic Verses. And everyone (except for Pedinotti) agrees that she’s really into Bing Crosby.

For the past few years, Pedinotti has mixed playful whimsy with earnest balladry to create an effulgent Americana that has powered itself through a number of projects. In the Sarah Pedinotti Band, the (short-lived) Raptors, and Railbird’s first incarnation, Pedinotti delivered on the promise of her biography: a wunderkind, Berklee-trained singer whose transition to roots music garnered comparisons to Bruce Springsteen and Tom Waits. As apt and, no doubt, flattering as all this was, it was incomplete.

Davis kids Pedinotti that all of her songs have something to do with “not wanting to be alone,” but more than a premise for her songwriting, it’s this desire that has led Pedinotti into her most fertile project thus far—a band whose outstanding promise led Metroland to name them Best Band of 2009. A group of musicians Pedinotti has either known since high school, met in college, or picked up along the way, Railbird are a closed circuit, a balanced equation, a container within which ideas can ricochet, accelerate, and incubate. Like Davis’ idea of the winged rollercoaster car, the band operate like one big mixed metaphor, but while this formula has led lesser acts into unfocused identity crises, Railbird are quickly preening their feathers into a sleek, well-oiled, (potentially) gravity-defying carnival car.

If you’ve listened to WEXT 97.7 FM with any regularity these past few months, you’ve probably heard the track “Hold On” from Railbird’s eponymous debut. A gentle, swaying tune in the manner of, say, John Prine, it’s built on acoustic guitar and harmonica, and probably represents the more songwriterly end of the band’s catalog. Recorded a year ago, the day after their pianist left the band, the album as a whole adhered to the rambling blues-folk idiom that Pedinotti, the solo artist, was used to. But it also offered a glimpse of the band Railbird were becoming. Songs like “Gigi” and “Locomotive” certainly call to mind the oft-cited Springsteen comparison, and “Born on a Railroad” all but epitomizes the band’s more stomping proclivities, but there’s a trace of David Byrne’s angularity at the end of “Ghost” and Karen O’s growl during the pugilistic “Come Around” that were suggestive of new dimensions the band were set to inhabit.

“I feel like we’re moving so much faster than we can record,” says Kyle, who moved to Saratoga from Brooklyn two years ago to play with the band full-time. In their present configuration, the band have only been around since this spring, when Davis returned from a trip to Ghana and Mali with a pocket full of West African rhythms, to join the band in recording their follow-up EP.

“We didn’t officially release it,” Pedinotti explains. “We snuck it out—burned it and brought it to our shows in paper bags.” As she says, the Flower From California EP is available only in hand-stamped lunch bags at the band’s merchandise table. Rather than a serious recording venture, the experience served as a sort of initiation and trial—a test run to see how efficiently ideas could move between the various members under ideal conditions.

What are ideal conditions? Davis holds his hands up on either side of his head. “I’m super influenced by Captain Beefheart, in that I have a spectrum like this. This side, all the way on the left is how Captain Beefheart rehearsed for—what’s that album—Trout Mask Replica. They didn’t play any shows for, like, eight months, didn’t eat, didn’t sleep, and lived like a cult in a house rehearsing all day. Then they went and recorded it in two days. The other side of the spectrum is when you just show up at a gig, and you’ve never met anyone before, you don’t know what music you’re going to play, you don’t talk to the band, and you’re 15 minutes late.”

Aiming for a place somewhere on the left-hand side of the spectrum, the band retreated for a week to an old A-frame cabin in northern New York that Carey’s girlfriend’s parents had recently purchased but had not yet occupied. To make recording space, they pushed all the couches into the kitchen. “You couldn’t really walk around in there,” explains Davis, “but there were lots of places to sit.” The band didn’t go so far as to abstain from food and sleep, but the experience did allow them to, as Gascoyne says, take the car apart and soup it up. A series of long and late-night sessions yielded gems like the gorgeous title track, live favorite “Umbrella Blues,” and a gritty cover of Arlo Guthrie’s “The Motorcycle Song.”

“It’s fun to arrange with this band,” Pedinotti says. “Rehearsals, I think, for me, are some of the most exciting parts.”

“We almost get picked on a little bit by other bands,” says Carey. “They come up to us at shows and are, like, ‘rehearse much?’ ”

Railbird’s set at the WEXT birthday party earlier this month was testament to their work ethic. Drawing mostly on new, unreleased material, they left those prior easy comparisons in the past and performed in a manner that was both airtight and uninhibited. Davis and Carey have become a propulsive unit on the back line, with Davis inserting challenging African polyrhythms into the pocket and Carey juggling drum and harmonica duties while triggering programmed beats with a foot pedal. Meanwhile, Kyle and Gascoyne have arrived at a perfectly democratic agreement about their roles as dual guitarists, Gascoyne’s masterful control of tone playing counterpoint to Kyle’s dexterous work on strat, slide, and acoustic. In the middle of it all, Pedinotti looks more comfortable than ever, clutching the microphone stand less for balance than control, marching in her lilting fashion, and staring down the lyrics as if they’re scrawled on the club’s back wall. As they move through vocal harmonies, tight breaks, surprise C sections, and into clamorous crescendos, Gascoyne’s assertion that these songs carry a lot of ideas seems like an understatement.

As for the actual songwriting process, though, the band members give most of the credit to their most identifiable member.

“If we wake up in the morning,” says Kyle, “and there are feathers all over the place, we’re like, ‘Oh, there’s a new song.’ ”

“Sometimes,” adds Davis, “she goes on trips on the Railbird by herself and comes back . . .”

“With bags of notes,” Kyle says, finishing the analogy, “and she spills them out on the floor.”

The bags have been brimming. Recently, Pedinotti says, she’s been interested in writing folky songs that are influenced by sci-fi. Drawing on themes she’s found in the work of William Gibson, she says, “I’ve always had a fascination with how natural beings live in high-tech environments and the schism this creates. I like to tell stories like an old balladeer but the music and melody are informed by this futuristic present.”

In grappling with this theme’s contemporary extension in the food movement, an upcoming project called “Farmony,” funded by a grant though the Saratoga Arts Council, will render the lives of area farmers in songs Pedinotti plans on performing for the Saratoga Farmers Market. But most of the material for the band’s next full-length album will explore “the dissonance between what we are and what we’ve created”—and the process is becoming ever more a group effort. Regarding this spirit of collaboration, she says, “It feels good to have people around who love to play all the time.”

It’s, no doubt, a product of the synergy Railbird have found in rehearsing and playing live that Kyle describes the new material as a “living organism,” but the trick now will be for the band to put these ideas to wax. Regarding the recording process, Pedinotti says, “One of the hardest things for me is knowing that [a song] is going to be down there forever,” a state that Kyle describes as being “buried alive.”

In August, they plan to record their second LP and are actively seeking a vacant cabin to hole up in. Afterward, they hope to embark on a national tour. “I’d like to take the Railbird away somewhere so nobody knows where we recorded, including us, and then come back,” says Davis.

“We’ll have to do it blindfolded, then,” says Pedinotti.

Slipping into the contrarian Philip, Davis spouts: “None of us actually write any songs, anyway. God just drops them down.”

Taking the role of Lulu, Pedinotti counters: “And they land on the table in a little bowl.”

“Suddenly, we all know it,” Davis says, “like, together.”

“Back when I joined the band,” Kyle says, referencing the praise they received for sounding like other famous artists, “some songs were really stylized, like, ‘This is a country song,’ but now they’re becoming much more original.” Take the Gibson-influenced “Not Alone,” for example, a track the band recorded for its recent CRUMBS Night Out appearance. A dark ballad full of effect-laden guitar, toy piano, glitchy drums, and a heavy dub bassline, the influence of electronic music is on full display, and Radiohead here seem like an equally valid, if unexpected, reference.

“Now, we’re not thinking so much about it,” says Pedinotti of where the ideas come from. “We’re just doing it.”

In the rush to get out the door, Philip casts a long stream of invectives against Sarah Pedinotti, who, he heard, thinks she’s prettier than his sister, Lulu. “And that Ben Davis is wicked chubby.”

Fit Club are in full effect, but Carey already has begun strumming the chords to a Hawaiian song the band recently wrote about a leaf that had survived a three-day mini-tour to New York, Boston and back, tucked beneath the blade of a windshield wiper. Even on the road, Railbird remain within the creative process, and it’s expected that anyone sitting bitch lead the rest of the van in song on the resident ukulele. It’s possible that, in their book, “downtime” carries no special distinction from any other time of day. The song’s called “Makalaka-Hey,” and Carey claims that this translates to “Don’t worry, little leaf; it’ll be OK.”

Late as they are, Pedinotti and Davis can’t resist prolonging the rehearsal.

Railbird are among the bands performing at Salem Art Works (19 Carey Lane, Salem) this Saturday (July 25) as part of SAWfest. The show begins at 6 PM, and a $15 donation is suggested. Call 854-7674 to reserve tickets.


ROUGH MIX

Laura Boggs

IN UNISON I love it when a plan comes together. I love it more when a band comes together. This Saturday, three of upstate New York’s best-loved folk musicians (and a few friends) will unite to celebrate the release of their first group effort. North River, North Woods is the product of a collaboration between Dan Berggren, John Kirk, and Chris Shaw, with help from guest musicians Cedar Stanistreet and Ann Downey. The veteran artists involved have some mighty pedigrees among them, so it should be said that this recording is something of a capital-E event for Adirondack folk fans. The group comes together this Saturday for a pair of CD-release concerts at the Tannery Pond Community Center in North Creek. Visit berggrenfolk.com for more on the record; or call Tannery Pond at 251-2505 for show details.

IN DEPTH Students of jazz looking to take their skills up a notch or three, take note: The Third Annual Hudson Summer Jazz Workshop is scheduled for August 13-16 at the Hudson Opera House. Presented by pianist Armen Donelian and saxophonist Mark Mommaas, the intensive program covers topics including “improvisation, composition, duo and ensemble playing, technique, practice routines and artist life issues.” This year’s workshop features special guest David Liebman, renowned saxophonist and founder of the IASJ (International Association of Schools of Jazz). Liebman will drop in for a morning session on Sunday, followed by a student-faculty concert that afternoon. Housing and vegetarian meals are included in the cost, and enrollment is limited. Visit armenjazz.com to download the application form and/or brochure.

IN THE STUDIO Tim Livingston, frontman of the Last Conspirators, recently dropped a line to let us know that he and the band have begun work on a new album, titled Powerful Friends. The album is expected to hew closely to the formula established by their last set, 2007’s Warparty—a formula they say adds up to “a potent Molotov cocktail of psychedelic-punk and soulful, garage rock.” No release date has been set, but you can keep tabs on the progress at myspace.com/thelastconspirators.

Also currently in the studio is folk chanteuse Laura Boggs. Metroland’s 2006 pick for Best Female Singer-Songwriter is expected to release Murder Ballads and Lies this fall. This will be Boggs’ second release for The Rev Records; her Whiskey and Springtime was the label’s debut release in 2006. Learn more about The Rev Records at therevrecs.com; Boggs’ site is myspace.com/lauraboggs.

—John Brodeur

Let us know about local-music news and happenings for inclusion in Rough Mix: E-mail tips and information to tigerpop1 @yahoo.com or metroland@metroland.net.



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