No Weak Link On This Railroad
In any good band, every band member pulls their own weight. But in most bands, even the great ones, there are usually one or two leaders and the rest are supporting players. A band like Fleetwood Mac was unusual, in that they had three strong singer/songwriters, but their rhythm section, while important enough to have the band named after them, were exclusively supporting players. Well, CC Railroad is kind of a "Folkwood Mac" in that they have two women and two men, but the comparison stops there.
I first heard the New York City based CC Railroad a while back and was immediately captivated by the way they incorporate 4 strong singer/songwriters. They support each other's songs with their harmony vocals and their ability to play multiple instruments. In the course of a concert, each member plays at least two instruments, some as many as four. They all sing lead and they all sing harmony. Each has a distinctively different style, yet it all manages to sound cohesive. I decided to check them out a second time around. What follows is a review of a house concert this past month in Cherry Hill, NJ, at which I had an opportunity afterward to interview the members of the band.
The show opened with the catchy "I'll Explain," a song written by Ottawa native, Ryder Daniels. Daniel's strong tenor rose above the three harmony voices and as he sang the chorus, "Turn Down the Lights I'll Explain," I couldn't help but fondly remember the time I saw the aforementioned Fleetwood Mac open their show with the chorus "When the Loving Starts and the Lights Go Down." While "I'll Explain" is clearly an outstanding acoustic pop tune with a great hook, Ryder's influences has a wider range than the 70's rock he first cut his teeth on. "Miles Davis and Michael Hedges have been influences on my music," he explained sometime after the concert had ended. These influences are more evident in his guitar work. His instrumental versatility was showcased throughout the night as he seamlessly moved from one style to the next in accompanying his band mates.
The second song of the night, "Overwhelmed," belonged to Montreal native, Cheryl Prashker. A pretty love song with a lot of power behind it, it was typical of Prashker's writing - personal yet universal lyrics set to driving Celtic influenced music. A classically trained percussionist who naturally spends the bulk of her time with CC Railroad on various percussion instruments, she is self deprecating when it comes to her singing. "I don't really have that great a voice," she offered a bit after the show. Actually her singing was quite effective in part for being so unaffected. She can more than hold a tune - she is able to move an audience and touch your heart. That is the true sign of an outstanding singer. It didn't hurt that in addition to her singing and strong guitar playing, she had the support of her band mates and violinist extraordinaire, Wendy Fuhr, who sat in for a number of tunes throughout the concert.
The concert continued with native New Yorker, Carolann Solebello, taking the vocal lead. Her song, "Long Time Gone," was about a woman waiting for a man to come home from the sea. Unlike Prashker, Solebello's songwriting tends to be third person and often in the form of a ballad. Her approach to performance is also quite a contrast from the rest of the band and provides a great change of pace within the show. A six year veteran of musical theatre, this experience greatly impacts her songs. "My songs are like little plays, with a beginning, middle and end," she offered after the show. "Unlike the theatre where you might not be right for the part, if you sing your own music, you are always right for the part." When it comes to singing, Solebello can belt it out and still sound pretty. She has a fantastic voice. Not surprisingly given her background, she also has a commanding stage presence during her songs, but this is tempered by her warm rapport with the audience and her band mates in between songs.
The fourth voice to sing lead in the fourth song of the night belonged to New Jersey native, Rich Boniface. It should have come as no surprise that after hearing a tenor, alto and soprano, one would then hear a bass. But there is a sense of anticipation to hear what is clearly the most unusual sounding voice of the group sing lead for the first time. Quite a bit younger than the other three, Boniface is still developing as a songwriter. He is focused in working as a team and creating the songs that will best serve the group. "I have been starting to write more upbeat songs lately since I've been in the band, since they tend to work better." In his song, "Last Night I Had the Dream Again," he credits Ryder for having influenced the sound. "We are all beginning to influence each other which is one of the great things about being in a band." Although a real team player, Boniface is clearly developing his own idiosyncratic style, and it shows great promise. Nobody I have heard sounds quite like him. Despite looking a bit like a member of Bare Naked Ladies, he is a true original, as are all the members of this fabulous foursome. It is a testament to the strength of their writing, singing, playing and performing that so much can be written on just the first four songs of the concert. What's even more amazing is the show got better as it went on.
There were many exciting high points of the show - some of the highlights included Rich's radio friendly "Little Red Riding Hood Wore Black" with its joyous 4 part counterpoint harmony, Carolann's tragic "Mia" with an inspired flamenco style guitar lead by Ryder, and an incredible song co-written by Cheryl and an outside band member called "Why Now?" In this song all four singers along with violinist Wendy Fuhr are singing and playing with such passion that it almost raised the roof off the comfortable Cherry Hill NJ home where this house concert took place.
The experience of seeing a show with four diverse and talented singer-songwriters is a special treat. It is impossible to be bored for a moment. The versatility is impressive. Carolann is moving from bass to harmonica to mandolin to guitar, Rich from guitar to percussion, Cheryl from percussion to guitar. It is Ryder, however, that got the first and last word in this CC Railroad show. The night ended with the first song the band ever played together, his own "Shakespeare in Prose." He told the story surrounding the song, as well as how the band got started. While he spoke it was evident the feeling these four artists have for each other. It is so easy to fall into competitiveness when everyone has such creative ability. Yet the focus is clearly to support each other's songs and no one overshadows another. It is a delicate balance to maintain, which is why so few groups are structured in this way, but these four very different individuals seem to fit well together.
It was a fitting end to a show that clearly could have gone on longer, but the CC Railroad had to travel back north to NYC. They had just finished a mini-tour of Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and Carolann proclaimed that they "still liked each other." A good railroad stays on track and all its rail links are equally sound. Well that's enough railroad references. Just buy a ticket and catch them the next time they steam into town. They are hot!
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