“Be careful this weekend. There’s a winter storm coming in.”
This was the foreboding text I received Saturday morning, conveniently placed before the Carbon Leaf concert my girlfriend and I had been planning to attend for the past few months. We had a decent drive ahead of us and the last thing I wanted was to have Mother Nature rain (or sleet) on our parade. Whether by luck or simply faulty forecasting, the storm delayed until the following day, leaving us an absolutely beautiful, albeit cold, afternoon to explore historic Annapolis, Md., before the show. Carbon Leaf, as it turns out, has annual holiday shows at Annapolis’ Rams Head On Stage. We had found out about this at the end of the last performance of theirs we attended in September and both of us were quick to agree that we should do our best to make one of these as well.
If you’ve never been to Rams Head On Stage, just as I hadn’t until that evening, you might be surprised. Unlike the venue’s sister establishment, Rams Head Live, in Baltimore, which features standing room only, here you are escorted to a table at which you can relax, drink and eat during the performance. Of course, this is intended for particular kinds of events, more intimate in nature, and it was a welcome change of pace from my usual choice of concerts. For this evening, the stage was strung with garland, wreaths, and other Christmas decorations to add to the mood of the holiday celebration. Light up Yoda heads donning Santa Claus caps spiraled around one microphone stand. The Force was strong at this concert.
Opening for Carbon Leaf was the young talent, Logan Brill, accompanied by Bryan Downing on acoustic guitar. This Knoxville native released her debut album, Walking Wires, just two months ago, but sucked the whole room in with her soulful bluesy vocals. The crowd was silent, in awe, as the echoing strings of “Ne’er Do Wells” combined with the stage’s reverberating planks; Downing’s stomps serving as a canvas for Brill’s voice. Silence soon changed to laughter as the two told us about the singer’s love of Christmas music, and how quick she was the find it on every station from their last location to Maryland. Thirteen hours worth of Yuletide spirit is enough to drive any guitarist insane. Nonetheless, he had to endure one more holiday song for their set, “Please Come Home For Christmas,” which was as warming as the drinks that sat on many a table. To close, and to throw us all completely for a loop, Brill decided to sing a French song. I still have no idea what it was about, aside from love, but it sounded beautiful. I’d recommend everyone check out her new album, which you can stream on her website.
A soundbyte of The Muppets introduced Carbon Leaf, who arrived on stage to immense cheers from the audience. Suitable for this evening, they began with the title track from their 2010 holiday album, Christmas Child, before heading into other Leafy classics ranging from Echo Echo to their most recent release, Constellation Prize. Their second track of the evening, “Toy Soldiers,” took me by surprise, as it is a great track, but not one that I hear them play very much at all. Other early tracks of the evening included a very funky version of “Comfort,” as well as the new audience-participation song, “She’s Gone”. Frontman, Barry Privett, casually singled out a section of the crowd when going over their expected contributions to the chorus, noting “Only this section has bought the record…” to the amusement of the rest of the room, who were apparently all failed on their participation.
“Happy Birthday, Terry!”
The comment burst from the audience after several more songs had passed by, which caused Barry to look up from the setlist. “Don’t ruin my line … I even had that written down. ‘Happy Birthday, Terry Clark!’ Actually, we started celebrating last night.” The guitarist/birthday boy nodding knowingly, adding “…that was a mistake,” to the laughter of the onlookers. Terry took us into another crowd-favorite, “One Prairie Outpost,” which featured the extraordinary Carter Gravatt on lap steel guitar, making the tune far more haunting than I’d ever heard before. A brand new song, “Alcatraz,” followed, featuring me singing along so wholeheartedly that I continued singing briefly when Barry decided to make an impromptu pause that wasn’t on the album. Needless to say, I was a little embarrassed and drew a few looks.
Barry then made mention of the band’s concert on the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower aircraft carrier earlier this year, saying what an honor that was for the whole group to get to perform for those men and women in the armed forces. As it was Dec. 7, Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, the guys decided to dedicate “The War Was In Color” to those who served, or are actively serving, to protect people here at home. It was really touching for all in the room.
Keeping with the theme of songs played in homage to inspiring people, the group could not go on without mentioning the late Nelson Mandela. They came to the front of the stage, arm in arm, and performed an a capella version of the Patty Loveless tune “Friends In Gloryland.” To say that the harmonizing between the five was anything less than amazing would sell it short. Some of my favorite moments in seeing Carbon Leaf are when they huddle close like this, as the room quiets down and the intimacy of the show is increased tenfold. I always find myself whispering the songs, eager to sing along, but weary of disrupting anyone else’s ability to listen.
“We should introduce this next song as the most dangerous song in the set…if not in the world!”
Terry’s matter of fact attitude about this made it all the more humorous to us as they began “The Fox And The Hare.” He wasn’t lying, really, as there’s little more dangerous than fighting Nazis and zombies, not to mention taming lions, tigers and bears, just to be with the person you love. To make it even more daring, Carter brought out a hurdy gurdy. While this sounds like some feminine gurdle torture device, it is actually a very unusual folk instrument operated with a crank and intonation buttons. But I digress. As it turns out, there was a celebrity in the house that night. One Mr. Patrick Murphy (Gaelic Storm) who came up and sang “Rocky Road To Dublin” with the boys. After he took his seat once more, Barry gave the audience his Patrick Murphy impression, donning an Irish accent and telling everyone, “Come on now, get on your feet! See, I can do this too!” before busting out with the Celtic Carbon Leaf tune, “The Boxer.” During this entire ordeal, everyone was on their feet, clapping along. Luckily we were able to sit and rest our palms before long, which was great, because I had just about clapped my hands off at this point.
In a very unusual turn of events, Barry handed off the microphone to bassist Jon Markel, who put down his bass and picked up a guitar as well. “Each year,” Jon told us. “We have a contest to see who can write the best Christmas song. This year, I won, and my punishment is that I now have to play it live.” Perhaps the fact that he sounded so traumatized by what he had written made it even funnier, as we were told that the song called “Carter’s Christmas Beard.” Drummer Jason Neal left his kit and came to the forefront with a washboard, the others also huddling into the singular microphone. I had to resist an urge to yell, “Nice washboard abs!” It was probably for the best. Jon strummed the guitar and started us off on a hilarious musical escapade which saw each member joining in, singing the praises of Carter’s beard. The highlights, undoubtedly, were Barry’s choice of instrument, a red toy clarinet that sounded more like a kazoo, and Carter’s operatic vocal ending that left us all clapping and laughing. With that, they said goodnight and left the stage.
For a moment, anyway. They were quickly back out and picking up all their usual instruments. The lights dimmed down from above and a few flickered on from the stage floor, giving the feeling of a fireplace shining its ambiance over all the group. They thanked us for being so welcoming to all the new music they had played, then went into the final track from the latest album. My girlfriend and I had heard this one, “Tombstone vs. Ashes,” live at the last concert we had seen, shortly before the album’s release. Having had time for it to settle in, we were more than prepared to sing along on this occasion, going in time to the banjo-plucked notes. As the evening drew to a close, Carbon Leaf invited Logan Brill back on stage to sing “Let Your Troubles Roll By” to end the night. Always a fun tune for all involved, it got deathly quiet when Carter began his solo, which itself bordered upon a whisper. But then, growing, it became a blistering serenade up and down the fretboard. I have heard him play this solo before, but something amazing was happening that night in his hands. I have no reservations in saying that: if Jimmy Page built a stairway to heaven, Carter certainly climbed it that night.
The music faded, the applause increased and the band took its bow. They thanked us all for coming and reminded everyone that they’d be out to visit with the crowd shortly. I must say, the Rams Head On Stage is a great venue to watch a band perform. It is not such a great venue when it comes to setting up a merch stand or having after-show chats. Corridors and foyers became quite crowded with the way things were set up, which left a slightly sour aftertaste in a number of fans’ mouths. But nonetheless, I had the great pleasure of speaking with Terry and Barry briefly, and then quite a time with Carter. My girlfriend and he went back and forth on topics ranging from historic biscuits, to Montezuma Mummy Jerky, to the finer points about milk and dark chocolate. Somewhere in there I had a chance to inquire about the odd instrument I’d seen him play (the hurdy gurdy), as well as bring up a conversation that we had discussed at the last concert. Next thing I know, he is taking us back to the stage to look at all his equipment and allowing me to try out not only the hurdy gurdy – which is quite a unique instrument – but also one of his highly prized mandolins. As a mandolin nut, this tickled me silly!
I’ve said it before, but I have to say it again: Carbon Leaf is one of those bands that just gets better every time I see them. I don’t know whether it is simply a matter of me getting more familiar with the music, or the fact that every release is filled with more and more music which never seems to fault at hitting me emotionally. There is just something in the songs and the way that they play them so sincerely and heartfelt that makes the performances grow richer with each tour they embark upon. I applaud them for their abilities, but I thank them for the time they humbly shared with each of us. I’m sure we’ll meet again soon.
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