Red & Black
May 10, 2008
There is a different energy in the air when you see a band that’s fresh out of the box at the start of their career. When those bands are shoehorned into the corner of some small bar or venue, playing in front of audiences not entirely familiar with their music, there is a sense of uncertainty in the air.
But there is also a feeling of restless excitement and curiosity.
It is that feeling that causes people to seek out new music, new ways to be moved. And those bands that have been sought out battle to win over every person in that small room, one by one, song by song, each night. Some bands cannot rise up to the challenge and they fade away as quickly as they first appeared. But there are those bands that do rise up to the challenge, who play with an unbridled reckless abandon that does win over every person in the room. Bombadil from Durham, North Carolina is one of those bands.
With their recently released debut album, A Buzz, a buzz, and a pocketful of insanely unique tunes that touch on all realms of our musical universe, Bombadil hit the Red & Black in Washington D.C. and in the small sweaty confines of the upstairs room delivered an awe-inspiring set that truly marks them as a band that is capable of winning over ever audience they face.
Bombadil’s music finds it roots in the time guitarist Bryan Rahija and bassist Daniel Michalak spent studying abroad in Bolivia. On their return home they brought back their newfound interest in the indigenous folk music they discovered in South America and combined it with the music of their youth.
Rahija says, “We really liked the folk music we heard down there and we just took pieces from that and tried to bring it together with all the other things we liked.” The results are stunning. If Piedmont blues guitarist Reverend Gary Davis had a child with a Bolivian folk-song, and that child formed a band with a ragtime piano player and the folk-singing troubadour down the street and delivered every song they sang with a storyteller’s touch, you would have Bombadil.
For Bombadil it is not just about the music but how they present it. When they hit the stage they are dressed in an odd assortment of suits, high-school marching band outfits, matador jackets, and a large collection of hats. They play with a maniacal energy that teeters on the edge of out-of-control but never does. Drummer James Philips holds it altogether as he calmly sits behind his kit, bashing away with a shit-eating grin plastered on his face. During songs the band bounds around the stage bouncing off of each other, with Michalak and keyboardist Stuart Robinson seemingly in perpetual motion the entire show.
The band all play multiple instruments (sometimes within the same song) moving from drums, guitar and bass to pan flutes, trumpets, and keyboards, and singing their back-up vocals un-amplified so it sounds like the show is being invaded by a band of drunken pirates (and that is a good thing!) They talk with the audience during songs, making them as much a part of the show as the band and their music. This evening they quizzed the crowd about the capital of Malaysia, before launching into “Kuala Lumpur” (which is the correct answer). Bombadil played the song with all four of them at the front of the stage, relying on foot stomps and handclaps instead of drums to provide the beat.
While some bands try to conform to a certain look or image, Bombadil revels in their idiosyncrasies, instead finding all that is distinctive about themselves and their music and moving it to the forefront of their live shows. When combined with their truly unclassifiable music, you have one of the most original bands around to day.
If a band solely relied on their stage presence to build a career on, it would be short lived, because while it may be the stage show that gets people excited, it is the music that keeps them coming back. For Bombadil they may play every show like it is their last, but their focus is clearly on the music.
“At the end of the day the emphasis is on the song writing, for the love of each song.” Rahija says, “To give meaning to what you do you really have to write songs that mean something.” At the Red & Black we were sung stories that had meaning. Tales about an old college roommate who resorted to cutting himself after his girlfriend broke up with him (“Johnny”), a woman who cuts off all her hair and locks herself in a church (“Julian of Norwich”), a simple remedy for a hangover (“Jellybean Wine”), and even a heartfelt plea to a girl (“Smile When You Kiss”), all found there way into Bombadil’s set.
The night closed with “Buzz, a buzz” off their debut. A slow building song that laments a love lost, it worked its way to a thundering crescendo. Rahija, who had moved from guitar over to keys, stood still, steadily pounding out the rhythm, eyes closed his head bobbing and swaying in time, oblivious to his glasses that were slowing slipping down his nose threatening to slip all the way off, as he intoned over and over, “I’ve got dreams, dreams, I can’t share!”
As the song neared its end, and the night drew to a close, Rahija slowly opened his eyes and surveyed the battle ground in front of him, and a smile crept to the corners of his mouth. As he watched the crowd intently following the band’s every move, he knew one thing.
Bombadil had won over everybody in the audience.
One at a time.
Song by song.