Bombadil performs for standing-room only crowd at Lee Street Theatre

  • Posted: Sunday, November 24, 2013 12:27 a.m.

Lee Street Theatre’s first show of the Winter Concert Series provided an auspicious beginning Friday night, with sold-out seating and standing room only for an enthusiastic crowd of concert-goers.

Lee Street Theatre launched its new performance space earlier this month with the comedy “All the Great Books (Abridged),” then with Friday’s concert christened the building as Salisbury’s new premiere listening room. The sound system and acoustics are outstanding, proving the 9,000-square foot facility, which until recently was an empty warehouse, has been successfully transformed into a new gift to Salisbury’s entertainment scene, ideal for music, plays and comedy shows.

Headlining band Bombadil, based in Durham but with ties to Salisbury, proved to be a popular choice for this inaugural concert. And the opening act, a trio from the Catawba College band Life Size, won the audience over immediately.

Catawba students Allijah Motika, Silas Boyle and Jake Martin performed with the poise of seasoned professionals. They are all seniors from Catawba’s unique Music Business/Popular Music major, one of only a dozen such programs in the nation. And Catawba couldn’t ask for better advertising for the their music department than these three talented students as they performed flawless three-part harmonies over their equally impressive instrumental technique. They also proved their versatility, trading keyboard and guitar duties back and forth. Their enjoyable nine-song set seemed to fly by.

Their songs, all original compositions, demonstrated that they have become accomplished songwriters at an early age as well. And their funny between-song banter kept the crowd entertained. They appear more than prepared to head out into a full-time performance career along with the other band members, Tevin Carr and Greg Moore, right after graduation next spring.

Unlike Life Size, the band Bombadil isn’t the product of a college music program but instead has figured out the music business more through trial and error and perseverance. Multi-instrumentalists and vocalists Daniel Michalak, Brian Rahija and Stuart Robinson began performing as Bombadil in 2005 while students at Duke University, with Michalak’s brother John, a UNC student, serving as drummer. They played mostly in dorm rooms and the Duke cafeteria, then they got an opportunity to open for The Avett Brothers in a pre-exam week show in the Great Hall at UNC.

Early Bombadil lacked the polish that Life Size has at the same age. But the Avett’s manager, Dolph Ramseur, saw the beginning of something special in Bombadil, and signed them on to his label, Ramseur Records. They recorded an EP and started touring, and eschewed graduate school, choosing instead to share a house on the edge of Duke’s campus where they rehearsed and composed and improved. When John Michalak left the group to go to medical school, James Phillips, a UNC grad, took over drumming duties.

Bombadil’s first performance in Salisbury was in February 2007 in front of a small but enthusiastic group of listeners at Club 315. They came back not long after that as featured street band for a Downtown Salisbury Night Out. Their next performance in Salisbury wasn’t until December 2012 at Ramseur Records Night held at Looking Glass Artists Center. By this time their Salisbury fan base had grown, and the band had evolved into the solid performers they are now. But the intervening years were not always kind to the group.

For a long time Michalak had been experiencing severe pain from neural tension in his hands, and in 2009, right after the release of the band’s second full-length album, he could no longer perform, or even brush his teeth for that matter, the pain was so severe. Not long before that, Robinson had announced that he was weary of touring and was leaving the band to pursue other interests. The performing stopped, but the creativity continued, as they each kept composing and individually growing musically, and healing. Then remarkably, the band sprang back into the public eye in 2011 with the release of a new album, “All That the Rain Promises” and all four members resumed touring together. When Rahija decided last year to go to graduate school in Michigan, the other three continued to perform, aptly rearranging the songs for three-piece band. Rahija is still well-represented on the newest Bombadil album, the acclaimed “Metrics of Affection” which came out this past summer, and he still joins the band in shows from time to time. Salisbury was fortunate to have had all four band members last December at Ramseur Records night, but the crowd seemed equally pleased by the threesome who performed Friday.

The band made note of the fact that Robinson can be called a Salisburian since during the band hiatus he “lived in his ex-girlfriend’s parent’s basement” in Salisbury. But more than that, he was working on his piano skills and writing. And he made contributions to the Salisbury community during that time by assisting at the artist collective and even helping out with Salisbury’s Amadeus Youth Chorus.

And Bombadil can be seen as having maybe just two degrees of separation from Catawba College. Bombadil is on the Ramseur Records label, and Dolph Ramseur serves as an adjunct instructor and resource for Catawba’s Music Industry program.

When Bombadil opened for The Avett Brothers in 2005, the Avetts were not yet filling stadiums like they are now, and only a couple hundred students came to that show. In fact, Bombadil may be around the same point on their upward music trajectory that the Avetts were at that time. In the past few months, Bombadil has been featured in the New York Times, interviewed on NPR’s “Weekend Edition” and had their latest music video premiered on the Rolling Stone website.

Bombadil was visibly pleased with the great turnout and appreciation of their Salisbury fans, many of whom sang along and called out requests. The band seemed to be having as much fun as the audience, playing a long set that was a mix of old and new songs. When the crowd demanded an encore Bombadil moved out into the middle of the audience to lead everyone in an old song of theirs, the delightful “Cavalier’s Song.” When they sang to “fight like a lion with a sword in its side” the uninitiated in the audience quickly followed the lead of regular Bombadil fans and responded on cue with “har-hums” and accompanying arm pumps.

It was a perfect end to a performance that had begun with drummer James Phillips looking out from the stage and up at the crowded risers climbing almost to the ceiling of the new performance space where there’s not a bad seat in the house, and saying, “I’m not used to seeing people higher than me.”

The audience wasn’t just sitting up high, they were high on the music and the fun of performing “the wave” at the slightest suggestion, and attending a historic music happening in Salisbury.

Former Salisbury resident Sarah Hall now lives in Waynesville and teaches for the School of Music at Western Carolina University.

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