"It was eight days, 2,400 miles and the time of our lives," said Old Crow Medicine Show's Ketch Secor from the stage on the final night of the Railroad Revival Tour.
I was there for the last two days, and I don't know how they did it all on so little sleep.
Picture this: Three bands (Old Crow, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, and Mumford and Sons), 17 vintage rail cars, dozens of family and friends and music industry (workers), enough staff to care for everybody, and at least one internationally known movie star, thrown together for a rolling revue across the South.
Two of the cars were set up as performance space: plenty of room for pianos, banjos, drum sets, accordions, hanger-outers. There were lounge cars for rolling living rooms, dining cars for constant feeding, bar cars for even more constant partying. Cars and cars of sleeping berths probably got the least use of all.
The whole kit and caboodle sped from Los Angeles to New Orleans at 70 miles per hour, stopping six times along the way to put on shows. The main jamming car was open to the air, providing everyone with scenery to fit the mood: Open, raw, rootsy.
But on the train, the mood was free, joyous. Two young siblings took over the instruments on night seven, busting out an impromptu punk number they made up on the spot: "We can do whatever we want! We can do whatever we want!" How could we all not sing along?
The Railroad Revival concept -- which owes a great debt to the Festival Express tour of 1970, which sent The Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin and The Band across Canada -- coalesced around the three bands at an auspicious time for all of them. They've all got more than just their feet in the door of success, but their fan bases aren't quite at Gaga levels. They're not pushing new albums, but they've got some new material to try out on the road. The trick would be to avoid the structural breakdown that made Festival Express a financial disaster.
Luckily, these are good guys (and yes, it was pretty much all guys). Mumford and Sons were coming off the serious exposure boost of their Grammy performance, which minted thousands of new fans in a single night. Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros were already a festival dream booking, whipping crowds into a frenzy with each performance, but more people have seen the viral video of a kid singing "Home" than had actually heard the band. And the Old Crow Medicine Show guys had serious road cred, but were pushing at the boundaries of their old-timey niche.
The rise in popularity and credibility of roots music can probably be traced in part to all of them, the miles they've traveled and the sweat they've poured out, and they had everything to gain from each other. It's like the perfect Pandora channel playlist, but like, with real live people.
Part of the magic comes in the collaboration and mutual respect of the artists, who paid hands-on, string-busting tribute to the well-worn tradition of learning music from each other. Like Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie, or Bob Dylan and The Band, the "Roots Revival" of 2011 is being created on purpose by artists who are actively building it.
Mumford and Sons played the third set of most of the Railroad Revival shows, but it wasn't about jockeying for position: All three bands shared equally in the billing, the risks and the potential gains from the tour. That spirit spilled into all aspects of the project -- the crews, managers, and label teams all worked together, in harmony, if you will.
Marcus Mumford dubbed the train's bartender "King William." He was one of the many professional, friendly staffers who found themselves mixed in with the scene. Train travel is definitely not the most efficient way to travel from city to city, but it provides a context, a canvas for the vision to land on.
It took 17 hours to get from Austin, Texas to New Orleans, rolling through poverty, bayou and plenty of industrial decay toward the home of ragtime Dixie. The atmosphere seeped into the train, and late night in the jam car the artists intuitively wound their way from more traditional, down-home tunes into a second-line beat and the jazzy funk of the Big Easy.
Players switched up instruments, throwing out classics like "Cuchy Frito Man," "Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky From Now On" and "Cissy Strut." This went on until dawn.
The train provided the literal backdrop for the shows, too -- the stage at each gig was set up right by the line of super-cool vintage railcars. Fans greeted them as they pulled in, taking pictures of each other in front of the gleaming steel. Tried-and-true fans and newcomers lined up at the merch table for train-themed t-shirts and Hatch Print posters, looking to take a little piece of the magic home. The big finale each night -- with all three bands, and tour-along friend Jake Gyllenhaal thrown into the horn section -- was a resounding, wild version of "This Train."
Just because something's been planned, just because something's being filmed (look for the Emmet Malloy documentary in the Fall, bound to be way better than the crappy iPhone videos you'll find now), doesn't mean it isn't real. The word "authentic" gets thrown around a lot, but it's hard to imagine a better application than what these guys pulled together.
We'll see if it takes them from where they started -- say, somewhere around 'chapter three' in their careers -- to the next place they need to be. Watching the last show from backstage on Night Eight was a band from Lafayette, Louisiana, ready to headline a local festival in the swirl surrounding Jazzfest. Givers is in 'chapter one' of their story, where these veterans all were a few years ago. It'll be interesting to see where they end up next, and how they choose to travel there.
Of course, they can do whatever they want.
Follow Rita Houston on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ritahoustonwfuv