Carbon Leaf at the Hamilton

Richmond based Celtic Folk band Carbon Leaf perform at the Hamilton in DC. Photo: Carbon Leaf

WASHINGTON, August 22, 2013 — For most of Carbon Leaf’s recent set in downtown DC at the Hamilton, front man Barry Privett sat on a stool, looking at the audience like he was having personal conversation with the entire packed venue. That’s the type of atmosphere Carbon Leaf brings to their shows and it’s accentuated further at a venue like the Hamilton, where the implied band/audience contract isn’t as clear as it might be elsewhere in town. But it was obvious here that this kind of arrangement is the one that this band, and especially Privett, enjoys a great deal.

Carbon Leaf hails from Richmond, Virginia. Being headquartered roughly two hours outside of DC, they’re regarded as something of a local band. Still, they don’t feel like one. In fact, they don’t feel entirely like a U.S. band at all when you’re watching them on stage.

The reason behind this sensation is this band’s very strong Celtic influence. It permeates their music intensely, to the point where Privett seems, on occasion, to be affecting a fairly convincing Irish accent in his vocals. But while it’s easy to say that Carbon Leaf appropriates an Irish sound, that wouldn’t be entirely fair to the band. Their own unique brand of creativity appropriates Celtic folk as more of a template for their music than anything even as it stands out as a driving force.

The Irish influence adds to the fun of the kind of musical evening Carbon Leaf provides for its audiences. Some of this is due to their frenetic pace, which seems to continue even when they’re trying to accentuate their softer side. One of the contradictions about Irish folk and Irish culture in general is their ability to appear upbeat despite having a consistently downbeat outlook on life.  It’s as if to say that, though life may seem on a bit of a decline at the moment, that shouldn’t stop anyone from having a jolly good time.

Carbon Leaf captures this attitude with blissful glee. Most of their songs have a sad undercurrent to them – often having to do with a failed romance. But then most Celtic-derived popular music—ranging from Irish folk to its U.S. descendants, country and bluegrass—deals with this subject, too.

Yet while doomed romances can hardly be regarded as “happy” or “upbeat,” the band carries on about them with an upbeat tempo that often glosses over the underlying emotion, which actually seems to be the point. Carbon Leaf’s songs are essentially saying “she may have broken your heart, but don’t let things get you down and let’s have another pint.”  It’s a basic principle that everyone in the crowd can relate to.

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What also sustains Carbon Leaf’s driving pace is their kaleidoscopic approach to instrumentation and the resulting sound. While many bands are content with drums and a couple of guitars, Carbon Leaf is all over the map when it comes to what they play. During their set, they deploy an almost dizzying array of instruments, including various tin whistles, mandolins, and the like, lending their sound a dynamic but still-distinctive appeal.

Carbon Leaf engages the audience throughout its entire set, not only through its upbeat sound but also from the audience interaction they generate. At various points during the show, they either encourage the audience to sing along or actually include them as part of the song just as any classic Dublin pub band might do.

On top of that, the band’s laid-back nature seems to ignite this mood almost like spontaneous combustion. By the end of the night, it proves that Carbon Leaf, better than most, knows how to entice, involve, and sustain a fun-loving musical crowd.

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Stephen Bradley

Stephen Bradley is an avid music listener and an occasional writer.  He grew up in the Washington DC area and has been embedded in the local music scene for years.  Currently he lives in Vienna, VA.   He enjoys bands that have been broken up for at least a decade.

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