If you’ve seen a Carbon Leaf show, you know it feels less a performance, and more like a party among good friends and family. To fit that idea, the already-homey stage at World Cafe Live looked even homier when strewn with table lamps and miniature lit-up Christmas trees among the gear. The bass cabinet even featured Star Wars figurines and something that looked like a fishtank. With a packed standing-room floor ready to give plenty of love, the quintet from Ol’ Virginny delivered an outstanding set of the rollicking alt-country-folk they do best.
The family part wasn’t just figurative—they gave a shout-out to the mother of bassist Jon Markel, getting ready to celebrate his birthday at midnight. The rest of the crowd may not have been related, but the good feeling and warmth were unmistakable anyway. The likes of “Let Your Troubles Roll By” and a lighthearted “Sloop John B” had everyone swaying and singing along, retirees and teens alike. Barry Privett took a couple breaks from his energetic frontman song-and-dance to toast the room (at one point with eggnog): “We’re so grateful. It’s Saturday night and you could have done anything, but you came here to hang out with us.”
24 years strong, the group can read each other’s minds and make dynamic stop-on-a-dime shifts seem effortless. String-instrument wizard, Carter Gravatt, stood out most with sweet guitar atmospherics and rapid-fire solos, but you can’t build such a hard-working machine without giving every piece equal importance. Terry Clark’s backing harmonies and rhythm guitar were just as key as Privett’s Irish pennywhistle. Though Jason Neal was absent for the show, his stand-in, Scott Devours, flailed at the drums to drive the show along like a chugging engine, obviously loving every minute.
Rare moments of chatter aside, they powered through one high-energy offering after another with barely a pause for breath. Loud catchy riffs made natural partners with stomping pub jigs. The mid-tempo “Raise the Roof” interestingly still sounds far too sedate for its title, while staples like “The Boxer” and “Life Less Ordinary” got hopped up to full throttle. They ranged from pounding anthems like “Desperation Song” to “Seven Brides for Seven Sinners,” which comes out as the rockingest hillbilly polka you’ll probably ever hear.
The encore wound things down with some open-mic improv comedy and a goofy holiday novelty tune, and before sending us off, it was time to get soulful again with a touching “I Know the Reason.” Pivett crooned as sincerely as ever: “This is the best thing I know / that we’re the same.” A fine thought indeed, and we’re always lucky to hear it from such a fine band.