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Railroad Earth and Caravan of Thieves on the Main Stage at the Four Corners Folk Festival

The 17th annual Four Corners Folk Festival is just a little over a week away now, taking place over Labor Day Weekend, Aug. 31 through Sept. 2, on Reservoir Hill right here in Pagosa Springs.

The festival will feature 22 live performances on two stages from some of the finest touring Americana, bluegrass, newgrass and folk musicians in the country. Featured on this year’s lineup are Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, The Wood Brothers, Darrell Scott, Loudon Wainwright III, Sara Watkins, Sarah Siskind, Elephant Revival, the Milk Carton Kids, Rose’s Pawn Shop, The Well Pennies, Anne and Pete Sibley, You Me and Apollo, Mike + Ruthy and this week’s featured artists, Railroad Earth and Caravan of Thieves.

 If you don’t yet have your festival tickets it’s not too late; the easiest way to purchase is online at www.folkwest.com or you can call toll-free at (877) 472-4672. Tickets purchased in advance are discounted from gate prices.

 Railroad Earth is one of America’s greatest bands playing today, plain and simple.

They sing of our nation’s changing landscape and social ills with a commitment reminiscent of Woody Guthrie, while interpolating instrumental timbres that could have been pulled from Celtic or Cajun culture. And as anyone who has caught them live will attest, their concerts are imbued with the fire-in-the-belly passion of straight-ahead, blue collar rock and roll.

 Then there is the newest album from the New Jersey sextet, which is the most cohesive embodiment of their myriad gifts to date (hence the decision to simply call it Railroad Earth), showcasing nine new selections that draw strength and inspiration from an acknowledgment of our shared past, while also embracing new ideas and celebrating diversity…just like America when she is at her best. Like their fellow musical travelers — from Bob Dylan and Gram Parsons to Wilco and alt-country chameleon, Ryan Adams — Railroad Earth eagerly embraced change in pursuit of an aesthetic breakthrough.

“It was time to do something different,” admits lead singer, songwriter and guitarist Todd Sheaffer.

 He and his band mates, violinist Tim Carbone, mandolin player John Skehan, multi-instrumentalist Andy Goessling and drummer Carey Harmon, plus new bassist Andrew Altman, have spent nearly a decade refining their sound and modus operandi. This time, however, they elected to change up their game, “to get a fresh perspective.” The result is the band’s most compelling set to date; encompassing rousing ballads and string-band funk, wistful waltzes and quirky time signature folk.

 To realize this vision, Railroad Earth enlisted coproducer Angelo Montrone, whose resume ranges from work with Matisyahu to Natalie Cole. Sheaffer credits Montrone for helping the band know when to scale back and when to forge ahead. The producer urged the band to draw out the rock elements of its sound, with additional electric guitars and even some judicious distortion, thanks to an arsenal of vintage amplifiers at Montrone’s place. The record even features some mean and dirty lap steel playing, courtesy of Goessling, which is a first on any Railroad Earth album.

 Michael Caplan also encouraged the band to highlight one of its most secret weapons.

“We have some great singers in this band, and we’ve always had a lot of background singing and harmonizing,” says Sheaffer. “This time we wanted to push it further and utilize that instrument more fully, so we spent a lot of time on the backing vocals.”

It worked: Railroad Earth features some of the finest harmony singing committed to record. That emphasis on the vocals works to underscore Sheaffer’s emergence as one of the most compelling lyricists of his generation. His succinct yet distinctive imagery and feel for the unique cadences of language, with key turns of phrase repeated, as if in prayer, fuse with the music to yield far more than the sum of its parts.

 Only history and the passing of time can truly make a landmark. The first reference to Plymouth Rock came over 120 years after the Pilgrims landed on the Massachusetts shores circa 1620. Nevertheless, those first settlers knew that one phase of their journey had ended and another begun. And so it is with Railroad Earth. It may fall to our children and grandchildren to validate the album’s longevity and influence, to file it alongside Patti Smith’s “Horses” or Neil Young’s “Harvest” as a record for the ages. But at the moment, anyone with ears should recognize its significance as a turning point in a great American story that is still unfolding.

 Railroad Earth will play the Four Corners Folk Festival for the very first time, headlining the show on Saturday, Sept.1 at 7:30 p.m.

 Like many families, this one started with a married couple — Fuzz and Carrie Sangiovanni, (guitar, vocals, various percussive “instruments”) writing and performing as a duo.

“It started as a romantic, bohemian vision of a couple making music, performing on the road, in parks, venues, traveling around and avoiding responsibility as much as possible,” says Fuzz. “The first thing we discovered was that we loved singing together, harmonizing our voices. Just seemed to click right away.”

 In the spring of 2008, Fuzz and Carrie extended their family to include fiery violinist Ben Dean and double bass madman Brian Anderson, completing their colorful vision. Since then, the four of them ran away from home and never looked back.

Within that first year, the Caravan of Thieves began to win immediate praise for their unique blend of gypsy swing and popular music, inspiring them to record and release the debut full-length album “Bouquet” (2009). To accompany this collection of dramatic and satirical tales, they built an interactive stage set of percussive junk and the ragtag quartet took their newly animated show on the road, sharing stages with world renowned artists such as Emmylou Harris, Dan Hicks, Glen Campbell, Nanci Griffith, The Decemberists, Keb’ Mo’, Tom Tom Club, Iron and Wine, Punch Brothers, Tony Trischka, John Hammond, John Jorgenson and many others. The Caravan successfully connected with audiences on each of these diverse bills, proving their act to be understood and appreciated by folk, pop, rock and jazz audiences of all ages.

 “The years spent making music as an acoustic duo, alongside street performers, forced us to create a style of music we can present anywhere, anyhow, plugged in or not, a little wild and raw,” adds Carrie addressing the palpable troubadorian nature of Caravan Of Thieves, “And this seemed to be a characteristic of popular artists and performers who have developed their persona and style that continue to span generations.”

 Driving gypsy jazz rhythms, acoustic guitars, upright bass and violin lay the foundation for mesmerizing vocal harmonies and fantastic stories. It’s theatrical and humorous. It’s musical and intense. It entertains, dazzles and defies classification while welcoming the spectator to join the band throughout the performance in momentary fits of claps, snaps and sing-alongs. If Django Reinhardt, the cast of Stomp and the Beatles all had a party at Tim Burton’s house, Caravan of Thieves would be the band they hired.

 “This idea of bringing the street performance to the stage led us to gypsy music and the 1930s swing era as these are free feeling, charismatic performances by real entertainers. With this as the musical backdrop, combined with our fascination with macabre images and sharp-witted sarcasm, we began writing happy sounding pop songs with pretty harmonies, dark thoughts and creepy characters. This all seemed to be a suitable combination. And banging on buckets, frying pans and hubcaps were just crazy and human enough to fit too.”

 The Caravan will bring their high-energy, crowd-pleasing show back to the Four Corners Folk Festival this year with two main stage performances: Friday, August 31, at 5:00 p.m. and Saturday, September 1, at 3:00.

 Complete festival information, including ticket pricing, Main Stage, Late Night, Workshop and Kids Tent schedules, is available at www folkwest.com. Children 12 and under receive free admission when accompanied by an adult and can enjoy a selection of free activities and entertainment in the Kids Tent throughout the weekend.

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