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The Band that Almost Wasn't 

Durham pop group Bombadil doubled down during adversity

This wasn't how things were supposed to go for chamber folk band Bombadil.

With bassist Daniel Michalak sidelined by a neural condition rendering his hands pretty much useless, pianist Stuart Robinson in medical school, and guitarist Bryan Rahija getting his graduate degree, the Appalachian pop band was all but kaput a mere two LPs into a promising career.

Bombadil's softer, almost European take on plain-speak, harmonizing mountain folk made popular by The Avett Brothers covered all the bases from foot-stomping ditties to mug-swinging Irish drinking songs to moody piano ballads—the result of each member writing songs for the band. Its 2008 debut album A Buzz, a Buzz even earned the band a spot in the lineup for Portland's Pickathon Festival that same year.

The sky was the limit.

Then, with almost no tour support, its charming sophomore album Tarpits and Canyonlands barely saw the light of day, and Bombadil was on the ropes.

"I ignored the warning signs and tried to push through the pain, rather than listening to my body," Michalak told NPR last year. "And it got worse and worse, to the point that in early 2009, we had to stop — stop playing, stop everything."

Eventually though, Michalak's condition did improve with the right treatment, Robinson kept writing songs and drummer James Phillips leveraged a friendship to book a unique spot for the band to reunite and record its third album.

So instead of moving on to other projects, Bombadil took another stab at being a band.

"I think that there is a different vibe for the band than different bands I've played in," mused Phillips over the phone from the front porch of his Durham, N.C., home. "Having worked so closely for so long, we are all equal shareholders in this band. In pretty much every other band I've worked in there's been one songwriter and then a band, but in this band that's not the way it evolves. If Stuart wants to play drums on a song he can and sometimes I'll play the bass. I think that Bombadil has got through all this adversity because of the unique structure that we've developed."

That comeback LP, 2011's All That the Rain Promises was recorded in 10 days in a barn at Pendarvis Farm, the same place that had hosted them three years earlier for Pickathon; a fitting reprisal considering that was where their early success had peaked.

The band hasn't looked back since.

Last year, Bombadil released Metrics of Affection, a heavily pop-toned album with slick harmonies and breezy strings and one that was recorded in a house the band shared, marking the first time they stayed home to make a record. And according to Phillips, the two albums since the hiatus are just the beginning.

"We'd really like to put out a record a year," claimed Phillips. "We write a lot of songs. I really appreciate the idea of art being something that you do and then you share. That is a hope for Bombadil. We have some more left field ideas like putting out a hip-hop album or an instrumental album."

For now though, Bombadil is wrapping up a more traditional fifth album, one that Phillips says was recorded in living rooms, dens, attics and lake houses. They're also releasing a deluxe vinyl re-issue of that elusive 2009 sophomore album and will finally give it a proper treatment with its own tour.

Bombadil is clearly back on track.

"We got started pretty much exactly two years ago focusing on Bombadil full time," said Phillips. "It seems like having us all in North Carolina and treating it like a job, we've come pretty far."


7 pm. | Wed., April 23

McMenamins Old St. Francis School, 700 NW Bond St. | Free.

About The Author

Ethan Maffey

Both a writer and a fan of vinyl records since age 5, it wasn't until nearly three decades later that Oregon Native Ethan Maffey derived a plan to marry the two passions by writing about music. From blogging on MySpace in 2007 and then Blogspot, to launching his own website, 83Music, and eventually freelancing...
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