Bombadil bassist Daniel Michalak played through the pain until it wasn’t possible anymore. In 2008, the tuneful indie rock quartet from Chapel Hill, N.C., was steadily gaining momentum. The group released a debut album, A Buzz, A Buzz, on Ramseur Records, the independent label owned by longtime Avett Brothers manager, Dolph Ramseur. A growing cadre of fans was also starting to flock to the band’s energetic live shows, which blended quirky expansive folk with melodic, piano-driven throwback psychedelia.
But as Michalak—who suffers from a neural tension condition—gradually lost the use of his hands, it became obvious the band could no longer continue.
“We were going full-steam ahead, but it soon became apparent that Daniel was overdoing it,” says Bombadil drummer James Phillips during a recent phone interview. “The pain in his arms got to the point where he was pretty much incapable of doing anything.”
The band’s future looked grim. They decided to stop touring indefinitely and members soon moved to various locations across the country. The desire to play together, though, never really waned. Material already recorded came out as 2009’s Tarpits and Canyonlands, and by the next year, after sharing musical ideas consistently via email, the group convened in Phillips’ new home of Portland, Oregon, to record another album—2011’s All That the Rain Promises. Shortly after, the group received an invitation to open for the Avett Brothers.
Through rest and physical therapy, Michalak has gotten his condition under control. It’s enabled Bombadil to be on the road consistently since last fall. The prolific studio band, which also includes guitarist Bryan Rahija and Stuart Robinson on piano, is getting ready to release a new album next month. Metrics of Affection was recorded in an old house that the band members now share in Durham, N.C.
Lyrically, the effort is surprisingly straightforward and personal for a band who’s always been honest yet at times emotionally cryptic; something Phillips attributes to “experiencing the disappointment of stopping and getting older.”
Michalak unloads some blatant insecurity in “Learning to Let Go” that would almost be cringe-worthy if the song weren’t so catchy. He also laments the frustration of his condition (“Even the best docs and psychiatrists can’t help”) through spoken word, as the British Invasion meets hip-hop in “Isn’t It Funny.”
“We all have diverse interests in music,” Phillips adds. “Because Daniel couldn’t use his hands he was looking for different ways to make music. He became inspired both by the attitude of hip-hop and the production strategies—making beats and loops on his laptop without using his hands.”
While Bombadil continues to toy with their own sonic boundaries, the group’s foundational dynamics remain intact. With Rahija now off the road pursuing a graduate degree, the band has been reduced to a piano trio and forced to accentuate vocal harmonies—the element that has always been their best first impression.
“All of us take singing very seriously and want to be better than we actually are,” Phillips says. “We’re trying to tell stories and share feelings with the music. You have to do that with singing and melody at the forefront.”
Bombadil performs at Snug Harbor in Charlotte, N.C., with the Overmountain Men on June 21. The band will also play the Camel in Richmond, Va., on July 26, and an album release show at the Lincoln Theatre in Raleigh, N.C., on July 27.
Americanarama Rolls into the South
An icon and a pair of roots music innovators are teaming up for one of the most anticipated tours of the summer. Visiting amphitheaters across the country, the Americanarama: A Festival of Music will feature Bob Dylan sharing headlining duties with Wilco and My Morning Jacket. The tour includes this triumvirate of Americana heroes with generational differences but similar tendencies towards evolution. Dylan, the 1960s folk bard of yesteryear, has gone through many musical shifts to get to his current state as a scrappy, blues-rock-based song-and-dance bandleader. Expect to hear a few classics, but know that he leans on his later material, which in current context is a good thing. Wilco and My Morning Jacket first emerged seemingly focused on alt-country revivalism, but with subsequent albums and years on the road, both bands have journeyed far beyond the parameters of twang into various realms of experimental rock. At different points in the tour, the three bands will be joined by either British folk hero Richard Thompson or outlaw country torchbearer Ryan Bingham. Stops in the region include Atlanta (June 29), Nashville (June 30), Columbia, Md. (July 23), and Virginia Beach, Va. (July 24).