Man, I know that I can’t hold on to April drops of rain
And then come-what-may, but it’s hard to look away
Life is rich, life is rich
Only if we live through its experience
No thought for a while
Just a quick fix on a smile
Spring is sprung, forever young
It’s just its job — gets in and out and then its job is done ...
The metaphorical cycling-seasons song touches on a recurring theme of the album, a moving forward while also looking back.
“A big theme in the album is embracing change but knowing your roots and when to call upon them,” said Barry Privett, the band’s lead singer. “There’s this kind of struggle between staying rooted and moving forward. As you grow and mature, it becomes harder for continuing the ambitious goals you had as a child, and to keep them in proportion.” How we deal with our dreams as life goes on is a main theme: Sometimes its “recognizing when its OK to alter them — recognize that you might have new dreams in the place of the old one.” And sometimes it’s “keeping yourself in check and not allowing yourself to deviate from your dreams.”
That sentiment could be applied to the overall life of Carbon Leaf, which plays May 21 at Water Street Music Hall, 204 N. Water St. The band’s members have invested some 17 years — from young adulthood into the dawning of middle age, having come together as college students in 1992. It hasn’t always been easy, smooth sailing, as evidenced by the string of bass players who’ve left the band along the way.
The band — which recorded on its own Constant Ivy Music label for nearly a decade before signing on with Vanguard for its past three albums — is a five-piece combo with a style based in rootsy rock and infused with elements of bluegrass, jam/groove stylings and, most notably, Celtic touches. Privett occasionally plays pennywhistle or bagpipes, for instance, while guitarist Carter Gravatt also numbers mandolin, bodhran and bouzouki among his instruments. Rounding out the band are guitarist Terry Clark and recent additions, bassist Jon Markel and drummer Jason Neal.
Rochester is the third stop on the band’s summer U.S. tour, which kicked off Tuesday — official release day for “Nothing Rhymes With Woman” —with a concert in Boston. Tomorrow, they do an appearance on Laura Ingraham’s radio show and play a show in Washington, D.C.
Carbon Leaf’s original members — Privett, Clark, Gravatt and bassist Palmer Stearns — got together as students at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va., near Richmond, in 1992. They hadn’t all been friends prior to gelling musically; they were all different years, Privett recalls: “I knew Terry, and Terry knew Carter, and Carter knew the bassist — it was just kind of piecemeal over the course of a couple weeks.” They started playing shows at their college — frat mixers and the like — and after graduation started playing the college circuit in Virginia, then elsewhere on the East Coast as their reputation built. By 1995, they had released their first album, “Meander.”
The band built its reputation on a live show that’s powerful yet intimate in its connection with listeners. Or, as a band bio on the Water Street Web site puts it: “Some bands insist on dragging listeners into their world, but Carbon Leaf works towards a more admirable and considerably more difficult goal — that of letting perfect strangers feel that the band understands their world.”
Privett figures one secret to their appeal is their willingness to try different things, to add the folk influences, Celtic instrumentation and the like.
“We’ve been fortunate; we’ve been able to get by with trying different things and arrangements,” he said. “Part of it is us asking ourselves, ‘What would we like to see out of a show?’”
It’s been a slow-building, long-haul career for Carbon Leaf. While no longer indie youngsters, they’re no household name yet, though they’ve got a loyal and growing fan base. Winning an American Music Award in 2002 for best unsigned act boosted their energy level and got them some radio play, and the first Vanguard release, “Indian Summer” in 2004, yielded a couple hits on the AAA (Adult Album Alternative) charts in “What About Everything” and the yearning love song “Life Less Ordinary”:
“Live a life less ordinary,
live a life extraordinary with me;
live a life less sedentary,
live a life evolutionary with me ...”
“For us, there’s always kind of small moments and incremental steps, and not the career-altering moments,” Privett said. “It’s things that kind of gestate and take a little time to bear fruit. ... The band really wants to continue touring and building our fan base. As a foundation, if you have that, everything else will take care of itself.
“It would be great to have radio songs or have our songs played in a cool movie — but those things are fleeting,” he added. They give you a nice push and something to feed on, but it’s really about the music and the show for us. If it’s something that people value, then our job’s kind of done.”