I always get mad when I go see bands and they only play their new songs,” Daniel Michalak, the multi-instrumentalist co-founder of Bombadil, was saying. “And that’s exactly what we’re doing tonight.”
It wasn’t completely true: The Durham folk-pop band indulged loyal fans with crowd favorites like “Love Is Simply,” “Angeline,” “Escalators” and “Laundromat” during a performance at the Centennial Station Arts Center in High Point on Oct. 20. But they also drew liberally from new material recorded for their next as-yet-untitled album, slated for release on Ramseur Records in March.
It was their first outing performing new songs recorded with producer John Vanderslice — renowned for his analog approach and work with Death Cab for Cutie, Okkervil River, the Magnetic Fields and others — and the material is so fresh that bandmate James Phillips had to confirm the title of “Math and Love” mid-concert with James Abbott, the band’s manager. With Stacy Harden, a recent addition to the band, contributing guitar leads redolent with delicate beauty and filigree, Bombadil showcased a quieter and less raucous side, with songs built around lyrical alchemy fusing candor and quirkiness, restrained instrumentation and lush vocal harmonies.
“Some roads go side by side, some paths fork and skew,” a lyric from “Math and Love” declares, and that duality seemed to animate Michalak and Phillips’ satisfaction in the journey behind them, and excitement about forging ahead with their new partner, Harden, and a new approach to making music together.
Phillips noted that the High Point show marked the ninth anniversary of his musical partnership with Michalak; the latter founded the band three years earlier with Bryan Rahija, who left Bombadil in 2014 but contributed guitar tracks for the new album.
Phillips said after the show that the new album marks the first time Bombadil has worked with an outside producer, and that he’s been able to hand off engineering duties. It was a liberating experience, and Vanderslice kept the band members on their toes, he said.
“His goal is to add an element of danger,” Phillips said. “We had a great time. We went out to lunch every day and ate great food. We worked reasonable hours.”
Phillips and Michalak said they were both happy to have an interregnum between the new album’s recording and release to perform their new material on a handful of “weekend runs” this fall. The fall tour includes major North Carolina stops at the Mothlight in Asheville, the Evening Muse in Charlotte and the Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro in early December, followed by dates in Philadelphia, New York City and Boston.
Phillips said he gets a sense of satisfaction from making a living, however modest, from playing with Bombadil, and is happy that he and Michalak found Harden — someone equally committed to the band as a full-time effort.
“Everything was different,” Michalak said of the experience of playing the new songs live. “We have new guitars, new pedals. I was scared we wouldn’t be able to play them live.”
The new songs are generally quieter than Bombadil’s previous output, with minimal percussion, and going into the inaugural High Point engagement, Michalak held some trepidation about whether they would translate live with sufficient energy to meet audience expectations. He needn’t have worried because the seated crowd listened with rapt attention and responded appreciatively to each of the new songs.
Paradoxically, by minimizing percussion the band made it a more distinctive feature of their performance. Phillips frequently played bass drum with a foot pedal in a standing position while also playing electric bass, with particularly satisfying results on the new song “Binoculars,” where the one-man rhythm section created the sensation of a gentle tidal surge. Harden likewise accented several songs with a tambourine played with a foot pedal.
For a band whose music is meticulously arranged — some of the songs convey a baroque pop sensibility, while others capture the warm instrumentation and perfected vocal harmonies reminiscent of Simon & Garfunkel or the Zombies — Bombadil’s charm as a live act is their willingness to take risks and fool around. At the end of “Escalators” a song from the 2013 album Metrics of Affection, Michalak suddenly decided to reprise the final bar of music, sending Harden scrambling to retrieve his guitar. When someone in the audience shouted, “Do it again,” they tried a minor-key version that hilariously fell apart. And during another song, when Michalak tripped over his guitar cord, he played it off by delightedly dancing around the stage mid-solo.
The musicians’ relaxed temperament and approachability also manifested in extensive banter with the audience, all the more notable for the fact that they had never played in High Point before. Phillips reported to the crowd that his long-time girlfriend from Minneapolis recently moved in with him, expressing satisfaction that he had proved wrong a Dave Eggers poster that declares, “Your long-distance relationship won’t work out.”
“But it hasn’t worked out in the past,” Phillips added, introducing a song from the 2015 album Hold On called “Forgive Me Darling.” “This song was inspired by a time when it wasn’t working out.”
While Michalak quickly taught Harden the chords to “Bona Fide,” a deep cut from Bombadil’s catalogue, Phillips quipped, “This is the part of the show where we invite you into our rehearsal.”
Then, picking up the story about moving in together with his girlfriend, he talked about an adjustment in rehearsals at his apartment considering that he now shares the space with his girlfriend and her 14-year-old cat, Lila.
“If we play too loud, she poops in the corner,” Phillips said. “So we’ve been playing a lot quieter.”