After over two decades of performing together, Carbon Leaf still has a lot to give to music lovers out there. I’m sure there are some people who are either indifferent to the band or maybe can’t even stand them, but their track record is mind-blowing to me. I’m not calling Carbon Leaf the greatest rock band around by any means, but their music is so diverse and full of emotion and energy that I just wonder how people could dislike their music.
Carbon Leaf, Will Hoge
Thursday, May 30 at Groovin’ In The Garden
After over two decades of performing together, Carbon Leaf still has a lot to give to music lovers out there. I’m sure there are some people who are either indifferent to the band or maybe can’t even stand them, but their track record is mind-blowing to me. I’m not calling Carbon Leaf the greatest rock band around by any means, but their music is so diverse and full of emotion and energy that I just wonder how people could dislike their music. By this point, I can’t even count the number of their concerts I’ve been to, the amount of money I’ve spent on tickets and CDs, or the sheer volume of memories this amazing quintet has provided me over the years. When Carbon Leaf was announced for Groovin’ At The Garden at Lewis Ginter on May 30th, my wife and I immediately checked our schedules to make sure we were free and then went about the usual routine of asking all of our friends who’s going. It’s a tradition going back as far as I can remember, really. Standing in line before the show made me realize just how many other groups of friends do this as well. Throngs of people exited cars together while others were running to hug friends they hadn’t seen since probably the last time Carbon Leaf played a show. Richmond clearly still has a lot of love for the band.
Or does it? Honestly, of all the talk of the Richmond music scene, I rarely ever hear anything about Carbon Leaf except a blurb for an upcoming show. In fact, the band released their ninth studio album in February and I only saw Sounds Of RVA mention it. As much as I think Richmond does love Carbon Leaf (and it’s evident by the audiences at their shows), the band gets overlooked more than the river city would probably care to admit. Why? I may be forgetting someone, but behind GWAR, Lamb Of God, and Avail, Carbon Leaf is Richmond’s most successful band. As noteworthy as each of those bands are, Carbon Leaf is truly just as accomplished. The band has made a two decade career off of music and touring that has been almost entirely do-it-yourself, something the indie rock movement of the past ten years prides itself on. They were the first ever unsigned band to play on national television back when they won the AMA New Music Award. That’s a huge deal and yes, it was over a decade ago, but it still adds a great deal of importance to their accomplishments. Instead of ignoring the quintet because they don’t fit into the “sound” of the Richmond music scene, they should be embraced. The bands around the city today should be praying that they make it twenty years with nearly ten records under their belt and a devout following not just in Richmond, but all across the country. That following that they’ve earned allows them to not only live well, but to do things like stay independent, build their own studio, and release music whenever and however they want. I doubt many Richmond bands would pass up the opportunity for any of those things, let alone the kind of career Carbon Leaf has had and is still enjoying to this day. A packed house at Lewis Ginter can’t be wrong in knowing that Carbon Leaf represents the best of what Richmond music has to offer. Their show only proved that overlooking them is a bigger mistake than you might think.
Photo by Jeff Trost
Carbon Leaf has always had a reputation for having some amazing musicians open for them from The Alternate Routes to Suzanna Choffel (of The Voice fame). Carbon Leaf even exposed Richmond to the sounds of Delta Rae early on in their career when the North Carolina band opened for them on a number of tours. The opener at Groovin’ In The Garden, Will Hoge, is just another amazing musician on that list. The Nashville journeyman & his band delivered pure rock & roll into a forty-five minute set that was hard not to enjoy. Hoge’s songwriting is well-noted: he’s Grammy nominated and has written hit songs for many of music’s biggest stars (most recently Lady Antebellum). Listening to his songs, it’s easy to see why he’s had that kind of recognition. His country storytelling backed with a great mix of blues and southern rock makes for some immense performances live, and he has all the charm of a true working-class rocker. With all due respect to Hoge though, his touring guitarist, Jesse Isley is absolutely fantastic and stole the show for me. It wasn’t just the guitar solos either (which were godly); he was able to throw in plenty of creative background fills to enhance the song in a way I doubt people were even aware of. Overall, Hoge continued the trend of fantastic openers for Carbon Leaf and treated the crowd to a noteworthy set as the sun slaughtered himself and everyone else in the general vicinity.
With the sun still out in full force, Carbon Leaf took the stage in front of an eager crowd full of Richmond natives of all ages. For nearly two hours, the band ran through a set full of surprises. Yes, they played the practically-mandatory songs such as “Life Less Ordinary” and “One Prairie Outpost,” but the band threw in some forgotten gems as well. Thanks to two letters requesting the same song (which Barry Privett read aloud and took certain liberties with), the band busted out “I Know The Reason” for the first time in… I can’t even tell you the last time I heard this song live. Judging by the crowd, neither could they. “Blue Ridge Laughing” was another notable song from their back catalogue that snuck its way into the set, treating people to a song evocative of growing up in the Old Dominion. An interesting cover showed up too, as Carbon Leaf, along with Will Hoge and bandmates, treated the crowd to The Band’s legendary song “The Weight.” While that song has been covered by everyone out there (with Mavis Staples always making an appearance), Carbon Leaf’s rendition was definitely noteworthy and did the classic justice, to say the least. The crowd was also privy to a good amount of songs from their latest album, Ghost Dragon Attacks Castle, including the singalong “She’s Gone” and the catchy, rapid-fire “Donnybrook Affair.” Their latest album saw the band return to their Celtic roots for the first time in over a decade, answering the many pleas from their fans, who made their gratitude expressly known. Another song, “Ragtime Carnival,” was played directly after the promise of an announcement next week, which will most likely be a release date for their new album, a collection of old-time music. They have mentioned this album in the past, and performed multiple songs akin to “Ragtime Carnival” that will most likely be appearing on the record. If you’ve ever heard Carbon Leaf gather around the Grand Ole Opry mic, you know this record is going to be a good one, which should hopefully continue the trend of new, frequent music from the band.
Photo by Linda Lee Clark
As the show went on, the sun set and the temperature dropped significantly, to everyone’s delight. I’m sure Barry was thanking the heavens for that one too, since his shirt was a completely different color by the start of the second song. With the night sky upon us and the botanical garden radiating in the background, the band chugged on with some of their more introspective songs, like “Desperation Song” and “The War Was In Color.” The latter has to truly be one of the best songs to come out in the past decade; not just for Carbon Leaf, but music in general. As the night came to an end (with their AMA-winning tune “The Boxer,” of course), you could see that everyone was completely satisfied with Barry, Terry, Carter, Jason, and Jon. The band might not have played everyone’s favorite song (we’re still waiting for “Tip Toe,” guys), but they delivered a nearly two-hour performance that represented the best of their catalogue in a way that still feels new. Whether it’s by adding new introductions to songs like “What About Everything?” or inserting the “Walk This Way” riff into “Let Your Troubles Roll By,” Carbon Leaf has found a way to keep their catalogue from aging, which is no small feat. In fact, that’s a something a ton of other bands should start to incorporate into the concerts they’re charging an arm and a leg for. As the night closed, I began thinking about the city that often overlooks them and realized that really, Carbon Leaf is Richmond. Like the town, the band is full of charm, eclectic beyond belief, poignant and wise, chock full of surprises, always ready to entertain, and sadly, sometimes discounted. Carbon Leaf represents all the qualities that Richmond prides itself on, and shares the town’s success and setbacks better than any other band in the region. Carbon Leaf is Richmond, and at Groovin’ In The Garden, they proved why everyone loves Richmond.