BLACK PRAIRIE WITH SPECIAL GUEST, BOMBADIL
Tuesday, September 17th
8:00pm / doors at 6:30pm
General admission: $15
Table of 4 reserved seats: $75
Advanced sales end at 5:00pm the day of each show. Remaining tickets are available at the door.
Despite their individual musical pedigrees, the seasoned musicians that make up progressive string band Black Prairie aren’t moonlighting. The ensemble is pulled together from different corners of Portland, Oregon’s remarkably rich music scene, and while the high profile of each musician in the band‚ which includes three-fifths of the Decemberists‚ ensures a certain amount of attention, it’s clear that Black Prairie are in it for purely musical reasons. They’re playing a brand of Americana that defies easy categorization, cross-pollinating a number of different styles while exposing the venerable, forgotten roots of folk and bluegrass.
It all started when Decemberists guitarist Chris Funk wanted to spend more time playing the square-necked Dobro guitar. While on tour with the Decemberists, he and bassist Nate Query hatched the idea to start a primarily instrumental string band during their time off, but it was a couple more years before the Black Prairie lineup solidified. Fellow Decemberist Jenny Conlee brought along her accordion, and prolific Portland musicians Annalisa Tornfelt (the Woolwines, Bearfoot) and Jon Neufeld (Jackstraw, Dolorean) on violin and guitar, respectively also joined the ranks.
The group didn’t come together immediately; it took a while for the busy musicians to assemble in one place, but when they did in the winter of 2007 it was obvious they were moving in the right direction. At that time I needed a musical shot in the arm, Funk says, and I remember driving away from our first practice feeling elated. The group continued to meet at regular intervals as frequently as their schedules would allow, and during an extended period of downtime from the Decemberists in 2008, Black Prairie‚ sound and repertoire really began to gel. Their unamplified, acoustic instrumentation meant that they didn’t need to assemble at grimy practice spaces in industrial sectors of the city, gargling through blown-out PA speakers. Instead, they had the luxury of meeting casually at each other’s Portland homes, leavening their living-room sessions with coffee and treats and conversation.
Once we all play it together, everyone starts throwing ideas in and it takes shape in a very collaborative way, says Query. We always add one completely out-there, bizarre section to every song. And in one out of every three songs, it actually gets retained. We’re trying to really keep the integrity of the acoustic aspect of it‚ of just five people playing instruments‚ so we don’t really experiment with that. But otherwise, it’s no holds barred: With these five instruments, what can we do?
It’s a significant piece of the puzzle that all five members contribute to the songwriting and, a couple of traditional numbers aside, the Black Prairie repertoire contains an unconventional mix of self-penned tunes. All my weird songs have finally found a home in this group, jokes Neufeld. I’ve been waiting to find people crazy enough to play these songs with me!
Aside from uptempo bluegrass and more familiar string-band sounds, the group commands a firm rein over a near comprehensive cross-section of American musical styles. Conlee’s accordion and Tornfelt’s violin provide a gypsy element on certain numbers, locating the shared stylistic ground between old-time music and klezmer, and providing a unique twist on the results. Elsewhere, the band cultivates an almost classical approach to composition, with songs containing multiple movements that ebb and flow in a way that differs greatly from traditional pop or bluegrass structure.
Most of Black Prairie’s songs are instrumental, in keeping with the band’s initial concept. They soon realized, however, it would be a shame not to make use of the rich, untapped vein of Tornfelt’s vocal capabilities. I was surprised when we decided to do it, but I was very excited, she says of her bandmates‚ decision to have her sing a few numbers. I think we all want to make sure the instrumental tunes are really the focus, but getting to sing with this awesome backup band‚ it’s the best of all worlds.
This mix of material got unanimous support from the band’s record label, legendary roots and bluegrass imprint Sugar Hill Records. The label encountered Black Prairie by way of Sarah Jarosz, a mandolin player and singer whose Sugar Hill debut included a Decemberists cover. When they contacted Funk to let him know about Jarosz’s cover, a light bulb clicked. I thought, this is one of my favorite labels of all time, he says. I own hundreds of their records, so I just wrote them and said we’ve got this band; do you want to hear some stuff? They said sure.
Sugar Hill heard the demos and one thing led to another and with freshly inked contract in hand, they had the impetus to hunker down and get to work in the studio. Black Prairie’s debut, Feast of the Hunters’ Moon, is due to be released on Sugar Hill in April 2010; it was laid to tape throughout 2009 at Portland’s legendary Jackpot! Recording Studio with producer Tucker Martine (Bill Frisell, the Decemberists, Laura Veirs) manning the boards.
Tornfelt in particular was an enormous fan of Martine’s work on albums by Portland singer/songwriter Laura Veirs and leapt at the chance to work with Martine. I’ve been listening to Laura Veirs’ records for the past two years straight, so I was like, I get to sing with Tucker Martine producing? It’s like my dream.
With a broad stylistic palette at their disposal and a pronounced emphasis on musicianship, Black Prairie is incredibly well poised for a band that, for most listeners, is just starting out. And their accumulated experience in numerous other bands ensures they aren’t likely to quickly flame out in a blaze of ego or exhaustion. The band jokes about being in their honeymoon phase right now. Considering how long it took us to get together, maybe we’ll get that seven-year itch real early laughs Query. But seriously, this group really had no aspirations other than musical ones. It’s just been for fun, and for our own sake.
Bombadil’s last album was almost its swan song. The quartet of singers, songwriters and multi-instrumentalists – Stuart Robinson, Daniel Michalak, Bryan Rahija and James Phillips recorded All That the Rain Promises in ten days, while living in a barn in Oregon. The barn was so cold, they had to warm their hands by a wood-burning stove between takes. The album¹s sparkling blend of folk, rock and gentle psychedlia earned rave reviews, but Michalak’s continuing hand problems made the future look grim. He’d developed a case of neural tension that made playing and driving painful. They toured sporadically and weren’t sure about the future of the band.
Happily, a regimen of relaxation and stretching exercises has Michalak¹s pain under control, and the band is rebuilding its momentum. They spent most of 2012 touring and recording the songs that became Metrics of Affection. The album is their most melodic and adventurous outing yet, a cornucopia of styles marked by mischievously surrealistic lyrics and their familiar lush harmonies. Their inventive arrangements add funk, country, boogie woogie, rap, early rock and hints classic pop songwriting, circa 1940, to their already eclectic sound.
“We produced the album ourselves,” Robinson says. “We recorded in our house in Old North Durham. James [Phillips, our drummer] engineered it in our home studio. It¹s the first time we recorded at home, instead of going somewhere to make a record. It was also the first time that we used drum machines, synths and samplers. James sang more on this record than ever before, Daniel rapped for the first time, Bryan wrote a cello part for the first time and I recorded pitched wine glasses for the first time. We all write songs and we’re not afraid of jumping out of our box to write any kind of song we like, whether it¹s classical, hip-hop, punk or bluegrass.”
Metrics of Affection is an embarrassment of riches, 13 tracks of pop without boundaries, brimming over with bubbly energy and masterful songwriting. A subtle drum loop, simple piano triplets and slide guitar, ala George Harrison, give “Angeline” a swooning energy to match its bright, playful lyric. “Boring Country Song” is actually a literate, lyrical ode to the missed connections that make relationships so difficult; its luxurious cascading harmonies and sparse piano will send chills down your spine. Bluegrass banjo and hip hop rhythms collide on “Born at Five,” a song that tells the story of an ordinary man¹s life in three minutes, a really remarkable piece of songwriting. The melody of “When We Are Both Cats” has the infuriating catchiness of a nursery rhyme. It’s a bouncy folk rock tune with Mersybeat cello, subliminal organ and unexpected snare drum accents, highlighting a cryptic conversation between a boy and girl who don¹t quite connect. The hook is a line spoken by Penelope Cruz in the movie Vanilla Sky “I’ll tell you in another life, when we are both cats.” Bombadil rapping? Well, yes, sort of. “Escalators” opens like an old fashion pop tune, with cuatro and gorgeous four part harmonies. Then it morphs into a slow rock ballad, featuring a melancholy trumpet line played by Michael Stipe to support Michalak’s vocal, a staccato sing/talk performance full of tongue twisting internal rhymes that land somewhere between Grandmaster Flash and Fred Astaire. Every track is crammed with little musical and lyrical touches that will pop your ears, twist your brain and tickle your heart with their unexpected flashes of playful wit.
Bombadil is as much a family as a band, a collective of like-minded friends who just happen to be talented and innovative musicians and multi-instrumentalists. Like all families, they’ve had their share of ups and downs, break ups and reunions, but the long road they’ve traveled together has made their bond closer and their music more emotional and intimate.
Stuart Robinson met Daniel Michalak on a hiking trip during a pre-orientation program at Duke University in 2002. They started making music on Michalak¹s laptop, playing keyboards, singing and writing songs together. In 2004, Michalak went to Bolivia as an exchange student and ran into Bryan Rahija. They’d played together in a cover band, but didn’t become friends until they met in Bolivia. After discovering they had similar ideas about songwriting, they began making demos. After hearing the band’s music, a friend suggested they call themselves Bombadil, after Tom Bombadil, the singing, songwriting character in “The Hobbit.” With Daniel¹s brother John on drums, they became a quartet and put up a few newly completed songs on their MySpace page.
Dolph Ramseur, head of Ramseur Records, loved what he heard on the band’s MySpace page and caught their live show soon afterward. He was impressed by their energy and signed them. He helped them book shows, hone their sound and make records, including the Bombadil EP in 2006, A Buzz, A Buzz in 2008 and Tarpits and Canyonlands in 2009. In 2007, a Craigslist ad had turned up drummer James Phillips, a long time Bombadil fan, and he joined the band just as A Buzz, A Buzz was being completed. The band was getting rave reviews for their lively, chaotic shows and brilliant albums, which drew not unwarranted comparisons to The Beatles. Then things fell apart. Robinson said he wanted to leave the band and Daniel Michalak was slowly losing the use of his hands due to his neural tension condition.
By the time Tarpits and Canyonlands was released, Robinson had quit and the band was on hiatus, hoping Michalak¹s hands would heal enough for him to play music again. Next, John Michalak left to go to medical school. It looked like the end of the line, but the call of the muse was too strong to resist. On his own, Robinson had been writing songs and asked Michalak and Rahija to help him flesh out his ideas. Rest and therapy helped Michalak regain the use of his hands, and the reborn quartet moved into Pendavavis Farm near Portland, OR (where the Decemberists recorded The King Is Dead), to record All That the Rain Promises. They toured sparingly to support the album, but with the band whole and healthy, and Metrics of Affection recorded and ready for its July 23 release date, Bombadil is back, on tour and intent on fulfilling their dream of writing great songs and touching people with their powerful stage show.