By Sarah Hall
What do you get when you cross four fedora hats and suspenders with a multitude of music instruments and a lot of energy?
You get Bombadil, arriving on the Salisbury music scene Saturday with a tuneful flourish and a clatter of vintage suitcases at the club Three Fifteen.
The Durham-based band consists of recent Duke grads Bryan Rahija, Stuart Robinson and Daniel Michalak and current Chapel Hill student John Michalak, pooling their talent in a unique sound being heard across the state and beyond.
In addition to the standard guitar, bass, keyboard and drums, you may also hear bagpipes and bells, saxophone and zampoOa, charango, trumpet, accordion, slide guitar, washboards, recorder, banjo, a suitcase and out-of-tune zither.
Onstage, Bombadil has developed its band badinage to a high art, trading instruments with abandon and tossing music phrases to each other with alacrity. Their show has more hand-offs than a Panthers game. The passing around of instruments, hats, and the limelight creates an atmosphere of camaraderie that’s extended to the audience.
Band members don’t necessarily wait for their cohorts to finish performing on an instrument before taking it over, resulting in two of them sometimes sharing playing duties until a trade-off is complete. Other antics — playing more than one instrument simultaneously, or in keyboardist Stuart’s case, performing lying on his back, hands crossed above him a la “Amadeus” — result in a circus-like atmosphere.
But Bombadil has the talent to back up the tricks. The high jinks embellish the experience, providing the icing on the already delicious cake, rather than camouflaging a lack of music substance, a tactic employed by lesser musicians.
The Tar Heel band actually traces its beginnings to Bolivia, where Bryan and Daniel were studying abroad early in 2005. (In fact, the band’s trademark apparel — faded pants and shirts, fedoras, suspenders — was inspired by the garments worn by old Bolivian men.)
The duo began to collaborate musically, recording songs in an elementary school. Upon their return to Duke, they brought in Daniel’s brother John to add percussion. Shortly after, Daniel’s friend Stuart Robinson was invited to bring his keyboard talent to the group, completing their sound.
Early gigs consisted of playing in the Duke cafeteria and dorm rooms, but they soon moved to local clubs and a tour of Florida. A break came when they were invited to open for The Avett Brothers at Chapel Hill. The Avetts’ manager, Dolph Ramseur, was impressed enough by their performance to invite them into the Ramseur Records fold, producing their five-song EP in May 2006.
The name “Bombadil” was bestowed by a previous manager who felt the Tolkien character represented the group’s musical and capricious nature. But just as Frodo was puzzled by the real identity of Tom Bombadil, you may also find the music group an enigma, their music defying classification.
Called “The ‘Napoleon Dynamite of Indie Rock’ ” by Knoxville’s Daily Times, they wear the “quirky” badge proudly.
The cover of their EP, titled, simply, “bombadil” sports whimsical art: a caterpillar holding an umbrella on the front, and on the back, an airplane strafing the countryside with pickles (bomb a “dill”).
The first track, “Jellybean Wine,” has an almost childlike simplicity before settling into steady rock — but with a wistful xylophone trying to call it back, nostalgically. The songs “Tall Grass” and “La Paz” exude two types of cheerfulness, the first lively, the latter, lazy and relaxed.
The group can’t suppress their optimism, even when dealing with sad topics. The song “Johnny,” about one of their friends, is a strange juxtaposition of catchy tune and euphonious scoring with clever lyrics about a serious subject:
Little Johnny Johnny cut himself to stay sane,
He had a girly girly but she couldn’t remain
By his side so he tried to fill the void in his life
By writing on his arm with a knife…
Another song inspired by a real and unpleasant event is “Sinister Side.”
While in Bolivia, Bryan was kidnapped and robbed, but later allowed to escape with his life and the inspiration for this song. The piece’s jaunty nature is due to the lyrics being written from the kidnappers’ point of view, as they describe their acquisitions: a hat taken off a tourist’s head, a pocket watch intended for a grandson but “passed on to me,” a camera with pictures of folks they don’t know, and a history book, which allows Bombadil to rhyme “Russian revolution” with Marx’s “wealth redistribution.”
It’s this ability to turn devastation to inspiration that has carried Bombadil through its tough times. An old, vacated sorority house they had been practicing in accidentally caught on fire, causing irreparable damage to the building and filling their equipment with soot. For a while, the smell of smoke from their gear was so strong that when they were playing a gig a club owner thought his establishment was on fire.
Everything Bombadil talks about in an interview — music composition, the Bolivian death train, gardening, Stuart’s bat attack which required 15 rounds of rabies shots — is discussed with equal wonder and amusement.
Bombadil has promised its fans a full-length album soon, and John reports that after taking a “delightful winter break” the band is back to recording with several new songs ready to go.
The new CD will include fan favorite “Julian of Norwich,” in which Daniel shows off his zampoOa chops. (A zampoOa is an Andean Altiplano pan pipe-type instrument.) Hear the demo at www.pure volume.com/bombadil.
They are currently recording in a home studio in Durham. Bombadil worked out a deal where they’d give the owner a piano, trading it for free recording time.
A family in Garner gave them a piano, and Bombadil gave the family a private concert in appreciation before hauling the instrument away in a flatbed trailer.
Problems arose. Much of the piano had to be disassembled to fit it through doors. There was rain and sleet, then mud, since there was no pavement leading to the studio door. The car got stuck in the mud, then the trailer wouldn’t come off the car. They ended up pushing the piano through the mud and rain and up six steps to the house. They dried the instrument off, reassembled it, then played Trivial Pursuit for an hour while waiting for the tow truck.
It was just another Bombi-venture.
We’ll probably be hearing a song about it — accompanied by a well-weathered piano.
To learn more about Bombadil and listen to their music, got to www.bombadilmusic.com, or www.myspace.com/bombadil.
Three Fifteen is located at 315 E. Council St. Doors open at 8 p.m. Saturday, and the show starts at 10 p.m. with opening band, The Extended Pleasures.
Admission is $5. Ages 18+ admitted.
For more information, call 704-633-1315 or visit www.threefifteen.com.
Contact Sarah Hall at 704-797-4271 or email@example.com.