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On the rails with Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Butch Hancock and Dave Alvin

The roots rockers head out of L.A.'s Union Station with about 70 fans in tow for a musical tour of the American Southwest.

September 29, 2009|Randy Lewis

"I had been booked on another trip with them, but when I saw this lineup I told Charlie, 'I have to switch my booking,' " said John Sweather, who works for one of Britain's largest telecommunications and cable companies and was making his third such train trip.

Alvin, Ely, Gilmore and Hancock consistently have written songs deeply infused with a sense of place, rooted in the geography and mythology of the American Southwest. At Sunday's concert, Alvin sang songs that invoked California locales including San Bernardino, Riverside and El Cajon in addition to sites in New Mexico, Utah and Arizona.

The Flatlanders' music frequently examines the freedom and solitude that come with life in West Texas.

"I see a lot of musicians come down from Michigan and Wisconsin, and they get to Texas and start writing songs about drinking beer and playing guitar," Ely said. "But that's not it. It's something about all the openness, all the emptiness."

The private concerts, late-night jam sessions and the chance to rub elbows with these musicians while on board made the price tag of a couple thousand dollars well worth it to several passengers interviewed.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, October 02, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 2 inches; 60 words Type of Material: Correction
Moving Music Festival: An article in Tuesday's Calendar about a musical train tour of the Southwest, dubbed North America's Moving Music Festival, quoted Danish passenger Jens Koch as saying that such a trip would be more difficult in Europe because it "would require approval of several governments." It should have read that it "would require approval of several rail companies."

On the first day out, Hancock worked his way through the dining car, chatting with passengers, welcoming first-timers and getting reacquainted with returnees. Alvin spoke quietly with a passenger about touring with his new band, the Guilty Women, and the joys and challenges of playing with other musicians compared with going solo, as he was on this outing.

The first jam session began modestly in the dining car around midnight on the first night out, somewhere past Laughlin, Nev. Dan Weber from Vancouver, Wash., Tommi Mattila from Helsinki and Domenic Cicala of Rockville, Md., cracked open guitar cases while on-board naturalist Elsabe Kloppers brought out her fiddle and rosined up the bow.

They took turns, "guitar pull" style. Mattila, who doesn't write songs -- "Not yet," he said optimistically -- offered such American country and western chestnuts as Marty Robbins' "El Paso" and, fittingly, Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues." He sang, "I hear that train a comin', it's rollin' round the bend," in his light Finnish accent.

Weber and Cicala spun out some original compositions while also gamely tackling a few John Prine and Kasey Chambers songs requested by Dublin tour guest Shonagh Hurley. Alvin leaned against the curved bar and looked on with a smile.

Tour logistics director Ovenden noted, "In this economy, people aren't sure what's going to happen to their money. What we're hearing is that when they do spend money, they're not interested in collecting more things; they're interested in having unique experiences."

--

randy.lewis@latimes.com

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