BROTHERHOOD OF BOMBADIL: Members overcome obstacles to get back on the road
By Steve Wildsmith (firstname.lastname@example.org)
It didn’t take long for the members of Bombadil to shake off the rust.
The North Carolina-based quartet (technically a trio, given that guitarist Bryan Rahija is taking time off to finish his graduate studies), which performs this weekend as part of the Rhythm N’ Blooms Fest, hasn’t been on a proper tour since 2008. Around that time, the group was making the record “Tarpits and Canyonlands,” and guitarist Daniel Michalak began to experience severe bouts of nerve inflammation in his arm.
“We knew it was a problem, but we hoped rest would take care of it,” drummer James Phillips told The Daily Times this week. “By the time we put the record out, though, we couldn’t play live shows anymore.”
There was never any overt declaration of the band’s end, however. Although technically considered an Americana ensemble, for whatever that term is worth these days, Bombadil owes more to the grandiosity of a band like Arcade Fire or The Decemberists. Quirky, upbeat and filled with delicate strings, clanging percussion and warbling harmonies, the music caught the ear of Ramseur Records shortly after forming in 2005.
At the time, label CEO Dolph Ramseur was accumulating a respected stable of artists, including East Tennessee-based band the everybodyfields (also playing Rhythm N’ Blooms) and The Avett Brothers; a debut EP preceded the band’s 2008 debut “A Buzz, A Buzz.” By “Tarpits and Canyonlands,” Bombadil had toured the country and played such prestigious festivals as Bonnaroo and the Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion.
After Michalak’s medical problems became too severe to continue, the members continued to support him from afar, Phillips said.
“I think we all looked at it as a challenge, for him much more than the rest of us,” he said. “We all kind of wanted to keep going in one fashion or another, because we’ve all done all kinds of musical endeavors over the years. Daniel figured out how to make music without using his hands by using laptops and loopers he would control with his feet; Stuart (Robinson, the band’s pianist) continued writing songs; and I learned how to play piano and started writing songs as well.
“It was a musically productive time for us, and we all wrote a lot of songs. I think we’ve got four or five records worth of material from that time, and it helped us hone our chops and work on our music.”
They continued to collaborate online as well, and by 2010, they decided to reconvene and make another album. Phillips was living in Portland, Ore., at the time, and his bandmates traveled there to record “All That the Rain Promises,” released in 2011. Then their old friends in The Avett Brothers called and asked Bombadil to open a show for them.
Although they couldn’t resume regular touring, the performance got all of the guys anxious again to get back out on the road. Short runs of dates and the occasional hometown show back in North Carolina eventually led to the agreement that another Bombadil album was a desirable thing, and so the guys convened last summer to record “Metrics of Affection,” scheduled for a July release.
“Our individual interests that are all represented on this record are new to Bombadil,” Phillips said. “I think we were able to harness that into one thing on this record. There are definitely some instruments and approaches to production that we’ve never used before. And now that Bryan is off at grad school, it’s been a fun challenge to rearrange some of the songs in order to play them live. To do that, we’ve put our focus into singing and stripped back the instruments.”
The guys just finished a run of shows in Florida and opened this week for the Carolina Chocolate Drops. It feels good to be back together and playing cities like Knoxville where Bombadil hasn’t performed in a while, Phillips added.
“Knowing people for so long and working together, we have a set path together that’s evolving and changing,” he said. “There’s history there, and we don’t want to ignore that. I like making music by myself, but it’s not as fun.”