Carbon Leaf brushed with fame. Now what? 

Branching Out

At the American Music Awards earlier this month, everything didn't go exactly as Carbon Leaf lead singer Barry Privett had planned.

While the Richmond quintet performed "The Boxer" live for millions on the nationally broadcast ABC show, Privett had intended to single out a couple of celebrity personalities.

At rehearsals the night before, he noted the plaques that indicated where the princess and "King of Pop" would be sitting.

"I was like 'all right, I'm going to point at Britney on 'she is the boxer,' and I'm going to point at Michael Jackson, who's dead center in front of me, on 'he is the boxer,'" Privett said.

But at the time of Carbon Leaf's performance, someone else was in Brit's seat — she had just finished a rare fully clothed performance.

"So I just pointed at her to keep the same camera position … It was Britney in spirit, but it wasn't Britney. Michael never sat down; he was backstage the whole time. I pointed at his seat, but somebody else was in it."

This, however, was the only thing that went amiss for Privett, Terry Clark (rhythm guitar), Carter Gravatt (guitar/mandolin), Jordan Medas (bass) and Scott Milstead (drums).

Two nights earlier, months of hard work paid off when the group was announced the winner of the first annual Coca-Cola New Music Award.

In late August, the band found out they were among 50 finalists selected by the CMJ Network from more than 800 entries. On Oct. 10, they were one of the top 10 who performed live at the CMJ Music Marathon in New York City. When narrowed down further, Carbon Leaf was one of five acts chosen to hit the road. A two-week tour determined which three acts would participate in a live playoff at Los Angeles' El Rey Theater.

Performing third after Denver's Yo, Flaco! and New York's Live Honey, Carbon Leaf members put their all into their 15-minute set of Celtic-influenced, electric-mandolin rock. After tallying the judges' votes — AMA producer Dick Clark, CMJ Network CEO and founder Bobby Haber, and Santa Monica station KCRW 89.9-FM's "Morning Becomes Eclectic" host Nic Harcourt — Clark congratulated the Leaf.

"It was weird to hear our name out of Dick Clark's mouth," Privett recalls.

For Milstead, the moment was the highlight of the experience.

"Winning on Monday was a rush for me," he says. "Wednesday was the icing on the cake."

Sweet icing at that.

The band was put up in the Wyndham Bel Age Hotel, the same hotel where all the stars stayed, resulting in some close encounters with the likes of Suge Knight and Uncle Kracker. They pulled up to the red carpet not in the usual van, but a Navigator limo.

Then there was their first performance on national television.

"That was the easy part," Gravatt said. "That's what we do. A lot of the bands who played on the show don't perform as regularly as we do."

True, the group averages three shows a week and had even practiced at their old college's theater (Randolph Macon's Blackwell Auditorium) a week prior to the AMAs in order to get a feel for what they would be dealing with spatially … but easy?

"We felt really good being up there," Privett says. "I think what helped was being able to sit down in the chairs with everybody else and watch part of the show — absorbing the energy of the room for a while as an audience member. It gave you a chance to visualize yourself being up there, as opposed to being backstage and waiting for your cue. … It's like 'OK this is another gig.'"

Except it's a gig playing to an audience composed of the music industry's heavyweights.

"We could see a lot more people than we thought," Privett says. "It wasn't like the lights blinded you, you could see people."

From the stage, Snoop could be seen nodding his head, glass in the air. Tyrese was standing up and grooving by the second verse.

Following their performance, the group got an endorsement from the man himself.

"Dick Clark came on [the PA] and was like, 'OK everybody, once again that was Carbon Leaf. These guys really worked hard to get where they are, and we think they're great. Somebody sign 'em,'" Privett says. "It was just like 'Whoa!'"

After returning to Richmond, Carbon Leaf hasn't had the chance to stop and let it all sink in. They're simply too busy. When they got back in the office the following Friday morning there were 500 new e-mails and 50 phone messages. "Echo Echo" had sold out at all local retail stores that carried it (Plan 9, Tower Records, Borders). Online stores and already had 300 pre-orders.

"There was a lot of office work to be done, and scrambling to try to make the most of whatever opportunities will come this way, if at all," Privett says. "There's a very small window of opportunity. A month from now, people will be talking about the Grammys."

Yet right now there is quite a buzz building.

"The Boxer" is beginning to make its way into regular radio rotations from Seattle to Richmond's own WMXB 103.7-FM.

On Feb. 2, B-103, Brown Coffee Productions and Style Weekly are sponsoring "An Evening With Carbon Leaf" at the John Marshall Ballroom as a way of congratulating the group for its accomplishments.

For the band, it's difficult to answer the questions that are on everyone's minds: Where do you go from here? Are you going to be signed?

For now, band members will only say that remains to be seen. But, if anything, Carbon Leaf has earned the respect of musical icons, industry executives — and bodyguards, Medas says: "They kinda scared me; they came up to me and were like if 'You guys make it big, give me a call.'"

More importantly for Privett, the experience has served as a comfort to family members.

"It's hard for your parents to watch you go through college and then decide you're going to be in a band, for them to accept that's going to be your lifestyle," he says.

"You know, they have a fear their son's going to fail," he says. "It was nice to give that back to them after all their support."

Carbon Leaf will play The Hotel John Marshall Ballroom on Saturday, Feb. 2, 8 p.m. Tickets cost $15 for this all ages show and can be purchased at Plan 9 or by phone: 320-5409.


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