The Independent in San Francisco is one of those rooms that always feels and sounds good. I’ll go there to see bands I don’t know. I’ll go there to see bands I don’t even like. So it’s an especially happy day when a band I truly love graces the Independent’s stage, like Carbon Leaf did on September 7.
Carbon Leaf formed almost 25 years ago not too far outside my hometown in Virginia. And even though they came to national recognition back in the early 2000s, to me, they’re still a local band. They remind me of home and of the days when live music was a brand new addition to my life.
After taking a breather last year, Carbon Leaf is currently in the midst of a massive tour, appropriately called the Gathering. With over 2,300 shows under their belt, Carbon Leaf is one of the hardest-working bands I’m aware of. True road warriors. They drive themselves across the country in an RV affectionately known as the White Whale (which may as well be the sixth member of the band at this point). And even after all these years, they’re still loading themselves in and out. They’ll be the first to tell you how exhausting it is, but to them, it’s just “how it’s done.”
Carbon Leaf has been an indie band for the majority of their career, but three out of their 16 albums—Indian Summer (2004), Love, Loss, Hope, Repeat (2006) and Nothing Rhymes with Woman (2009)—were released during their brief time with Vanguard Records. The return to independent status was a deliberate choice, wanting more freedom to release music on their own terms and schedule.
But in true indie spirit, they also wanted full rights and control over their entire catalogue, and for that, they had to get creative. Beginning in 2014 (to commemorate the 10-year anniversary of Indian Summer), Carbon Leaf went back into the studio, fully supported by crowdfunding campaigns, and began re-recording each of the Vanguard albums from scratch. The third and final one was released earlier this year.
With that effort complete, Carbon Leaf has jumped headfirst into writing new music again, so this particular tour is a celebration of sorts. The new tracks haven’t been rolled out yet—they’re currently looking towards a November date—but the band’s energy feels renewed, excited to be back amongst fiercely loyal fans all across the country.
Having seen Carbon Leaf at different stages in their career, two truths have remained. First, the rock-solid musicianship. At its core, their music can be classified as indie pop-rock (they call it “rock on whole wheat”), but elements of country, bluegrass, blues, Celtic folk, and even punk weave in and out. On any given song, lead singer Barry Privett might whip out a penny whistle. Or lead guitarist Carter Gravatt might switch to fiddle, mandolin or bouzouki. Bassist Jon Markel might play his upright bass on a song or two. Oh, and four of the five members sing.
Carbon Leaf does it all, and it fits. Their songs are tight enough for a casual listener to tap a foot or dance along, but they leave just enough room for creative interpretation in the live setting. For example, at this show we were treated to a delicious three-minute guitar solo in “Let Your Troubles Roll By.” It was a total surprise and a perfect reminder why these guys are the real deal.
The second truth about the band is how they are so comfortable onstage. The vibe at a Carbon Leaf show is more house party than concert. They banter with each other and the crowd as if everyone in the room are old friends, and in many cases it’s not much of a stretch. That’s especially obvious when the band randomly cuts out for moments or even entire verses. The crowd continues to sing, sometimes even in four-part harmony.
Both expectations held on this night. They were spot-on musically and, like the name of the tour suggests, the atmosphere felt like a long-awaited gathering of friends. The setlist included songs stretching back to their 1999 release, Ether-Electrified Porch Music, all the way up to their most recent, Constellation Prize (2013). It was a mostly high-energy set, complete with a healthy handful of Celtic dance jams (“She’s Gone (… For Good This Time),” “The Boxer” and “Donnybrook Affair”) as well as a few epic emotional landscapes (“Lake of Silver Bells,” “The War Was in Color”).
Missing were some of the usual staples, like “Raise the Roof” and “Learn to Fly.” (Any band with a discography that extensive is going to have to pick and choose). But the absence of those fan favorites was forgiven, thanks to some unexpected gems like a fiery, Santana-like rendition of “Paloma” and a stripped-down, single-microphone version of “Comfort.”
Towards the end of the performance, Privett mentioned that during load-in earlier in the day, someone had driven by the venue and leaned out their car window, shouting, “If you play ‘Big Strong Man,’ I’ll come to the show!” You could feel the crowd’s anticipatory energy rise. It’s an old traditional Irish tune, but Carbon Leaf’s cover has been a fan favorite for years, in no small part to the fact they don’t play it much, if ever, anymore. I was excited, too. In the 20 or so Carbon Leaf shows I’ve caught in about as many years, I had never heard it live.
Privett asked the crowd, “Who was that? Are you here?” No response. You could actually feel a sigh of relief emanate from the stage. He looked at the rest of the band and asked, “Do we still have to play it?” There was a long pause as shouts of “play it!” came from around the room. I think they were legitimately trying to decide whether or not to go for it.
Ever-committed to their fans—and, as Gravatt told me after the show, because they had spent time the day going over the song, fully expecting the guy to show up—they launched into “Big Strong Man” with gusto. It was glorious.
The Independent is built for a band as dynamic as Carbon Leaf. There’s enough space in the 500-person capacity room to let the volume fly, but it’s also small enough to pull off tricks like walking out among the crowd and playing entirely acoustically. It’s a venue built for serious music fans, too. Whether you’re standing up against the edge of the stage or sitting at the back bar, you can’t help but be fully immersed in the proceedings.
The feeling didn’t end when the house lights came up. No one wanted to leave. Between fans chatting amongst each other and paying respects to band members, the room was still full 45 minutes later. Eventually, the staff (very kindly) led everyone to the doors.
As we exited into the cool Bay Area nighttime, I heard someone shout, “Don’t be sad, just come back!” An order I bet everyone in that room follows.
1 .What About Everything?
3. One Prairie Outpost
4. Life Less Ordinary
5. Love Rain Down
6. Torn to Tattered
7. Blue Ridge Laughing
8. Lake of Silver Bells
10. On Any Given Day
11. Desperation Song
12. American Tale
13. The War Was in Color
15. She’s Gone (… For Good This Time)
16. Big Strong Man
17. The Boxer
18. Donnybrook Affair
19. Let Your Troubles Roll By