News Column

Chamomile and Whiskey Raise a Glass to Folk Rock

May 22, 2013

What starts out as a fairly straightforward promotional trailer for Chamomile and Whiskey's debut album, "Wandering Boots," quickly turns into a cleverly crafted reminder of the perks of being a rock star.

At first, the roughly five-minute clip on the group's website shows band members casually hanging out on a street corner in Charlottesville, their home base. But it's not long before they happen upon a conveniently parked stretch-limousine that whisks them away to a red-carpet event characteristic of a Hollywood premiere.

The paparazzi and a crowd of enthusiastic admirers wait patiently for singer/guitarist Koda Kerl, fiddle player Marie Borgman, drummer Brenning Greenfield, all 23, banjo player/vocalist Ryan Lavin, 24, and upright bassist Tim Deibler, 29, to arrive at the venue, where they perform a rousing rendition of the title track off their new record.

"I've been astray for too long to refuse/This tired soul and my wandering boots/A floor to lay my head and a drink would do me right/I am just a vagabond staying here tonight," Kerl earnestly intones, as the crowd frenetically dances and the chorus trails off into a raucous jam of screaming fiddle, frenzied banjo and accelerated drums.

The whole sequence is a stylized fantasy of sorts, but one that clearly aligns itself with an up-and-coming band's aspirations to make their mark. And the video offers a glimpse into the rather playfully creative minds of Kerl and company, who seem perfectly capable of putting their own revved-up spin on the nu-folk invasion that's dominated the airwaves of popular music as of late.

Perhaps most curiously, given the electronic dance craze that surrounds bands like Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers on radio station playlists around the country, is that the brand of string-based hootenanny they debuted with a couple of years ago has tapped into many modern hearts, resulting in both being described as the most banjo-centric groups to ever dent U.S. charts.

While there are folkier echoes in the Chamomile and Whiskey repertoire, the real vestige of rapture rests in the energy and attitude the band brings to the table, particularly when they're playing live, which the quintet will do Friday at The Jefferson Theater in Charlottesville to celebrate the release of their LP. The group also will perform at The Stoney Badger Saturday.

"I think one of the things I love about performing is connecting with the audience," Kerl says while sitting in a flea market-style chair at Rapunzel's Coffee and Books in Lovingston, a place that's fostered the band's development since they used its stage as a launching pad for their rock 'n' roll pilgrimage two years ago.

"I know, for me, the most joy that I ever get in my life right now -- some of it's been right here in this room -- is when I'm playing a song with all these people that I love onstage, and I just see people dancing and singing along. It's one of the coolest feelings you could ever experience."

Three of the five band members made the trip to Nelson County for the interview.

Kerl, a gregarious guy accustomed to holding court, is wearing a dark-gray blazer over a long sleeve shirt with snap buttons, gray corduroys and scuffed, brown cowboy boots. Close on his heels are Lavin and Borgman (Kerl's girlfriend).

They too share a similar taste in fashion: Lavin also is sporting cowboy boots, a vest, a rustic blue shirt, blue jeans, a long, thick beard and curly hair that hangs to his shoulders. Borgman resembles a free-spirited hippie chick, with flowing locks and a laid-back, almost shy demeanor -- the twinkle of her nose ring occasionally visible beneath the lights.

She waits patiently for her chance to chime in, while Kerl seems more game for chitchat, and Lavin tries to measure his words with a sense of intent.

"People know when they hear something that's not genuine," Lavin says. "They can pick up on that. And I just want to keep creating and building relationships and doing it right."

The collection of tracks Chamomile and Whiskey has put together on "Wandering Boots" certainly attest to their depth and focus as a decidedly driven group of musicians whose expectations seem to far outweigh the possibility of them burning out before they've had a chance to leave the starting gate.

From the foot-stomping fiddling of the enlivened "Dirty Sea" to the countrified electric guitar strums of the Dylan-esque "Impressions" to the bittersweet musings of the ruminative "Long Day," Chamomile and Whiskey's disc delivers nine tunes that, as the title hints, find the outfit wandering through the rich history of the American songbook.

It's an approach to writing music that Kerl picked up while immersing himself in the sounds of The Hackensaw Boys, who formed in Charlottesville in the late 1990s and became something of a local institution before garnering a national and international audience for their traditional yet distinct blend of folk and country.

Accentuated by rapid-fire finger-picking, baritone harmonies and bluegrass-tinged punk rock, the diversity of the band's catalog is an obvious inspiration for Kerl, specifically the stylings of former Hackensaw Boy and founding member Bobby St. Ours.

"Bobby is, to me personally, one of the biggest musical influences of my life and a great friend," Kerl says. "He's an incredible musician."

Lavin also succeeds in adding another dimension to the band's sound with his versatility as a banjo player and guitarist, as well as a singer/songwriter, which seems especially apparent on the three tracks -- "Inverness," "Buckfast Tuesday" and "Dirty Sea" -- the Irish-bred picker penned for the album.

"Inverness" -- a tune Lavin confesses was the only thing that came out of a failed attempt at studying fine art at a college in Ireland before he permanently settled in the States a few years ago -- is a raw, full-throttled exercise that captures the incessant drive of early Neil Young and Crazy Horse, minus the rugged distortion.

Instead, some restrained guitar chords and a stormy surge of banjo serve as the rhythm section's central aesthetic, something that washes away any trace of a folk sing-along and, suddenly, evolves into a lighting-fast melody of intensity and grit.

"Well, it's been three whole days/Since I filled myself with cigarette haze/When we live our lives a spark but not a blaze/And needless to say/Like an actress in a silent play/She can live her life beneath a muted gaze," Lavin croons in a guttural yet soulful delivery, just before Borgman finesses her fiddle for a solo that bridges the gap between the hook and next verse.

"It's an impressionistic-based, imagery kind of a thing," Lavin says of the track. "That sort of poetic way of writing songs without actually having a proper meaning to it, so that people can pick up what they want from it."

Fantasizing about the possibilities, even those that seem rather extreme, comes with the territory. Transporting the listener is at the core of what it means to be a divergent and prolific songwriter, a challenge the band accepts and hopes to tackle by showcasing their range and storytelling style.

"'Buckfast Tuesday' is slower, but it still sounds like Chamomile and Whiskey, obviously," Borgman says. "It's just another slower one where we rock in a different way. The second one on the album, 'Dirty Sea,' that's a song I think would represent our Celtic rock. And the last one on the album, 'Second Lullaby,' is a really gypsy, pirate sounding song. So it's pretty cool. And that's why I'm really excited about this album."

But, more than anything, it's the glare of a venue's marquee, which lights the way to a stage primed for an epic performance, that beckons Chamomile and Whiskey to unlock their inner roar and push the envelope on a brand of music they're committed to for the long haul.

"I didn't have a proper show until I moved to America and had one with these lads," Lavin says in his thick Irish brogue. "But being entertainers and doing that, entertaining people, first and foremost, is our goal. And this is what I'm doing for the rest of my life. I have no plan B."

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(c)2013 The News & Advance (Lynchburg, Va.)

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