In the yard of Brennan Gilmore’s farmhouse outside of town, a jagged line of trees lie on their sides, torn from the ground by a recent tornado, chunks of red dirt still clinging to the roots. In the distance, mist settles in over the mountains, and the whole scene feels quintessentially Virginia, a feeling underscored by the arrival of Gilmore’s Wild Common bandmates to practice.
One by one, cars ramble down the dirt driveway and musicians amble through the doorway, greeting each other with handshakes and hugs, grabbing beers from the fridge and filling glasses of water from the tap. A couple of hounds trot around, collar tags tinkling high over instrument cases being unclipped and unzipped.
There’s master fiddler Nate Leath, who won the adult bluegrass fiddle contest at the Galax Old Fiddlers’ Convention when he was just 11 years old; soul, funk, and reggae singer Davina Jackson, who used to sing backup for The Wailers; Jackson’s son, Atreyu Jackson, a rapper and the latest addition to the band; keyboardist Bryan Holmes, and jazz bassist and composer Dhara Goradia. Drummer Rob Hubbard, who’s played everything from bluegrass to reggae, can’t make it—he had a dentist appointment earlier in the day that sounds like it required a lot of drilling.
The band’s big enough for practice to feel like a party.
Wild Common first came together in this very farmhouse about a year ago, when Gilmore, Davina Jackson, Leath, and Hubbard convened to work out some songs to play at a rally for then-gubernatorial candidate Ralph Northam. Northam’s people called Gilmore, who’s had careers in both music and politics, to put together a bluegrass band for an October 19, 2017, rally at the Richmond Convention Center, where former President Barack Obama would be on hand to endorse Northam.
Cover art by Madeleine Rhondeau
But bluegrass “is not the most diverse music out there,” says Gilmore, and for this rally, he wanted to put together a band more representative—musically, socially, racially—of a diversity he knew would be reflected in the rally crowd.
Gilmore, Jackson, and Leath recall that first gig well. Thousands of people crowded toward the stage to get the best view of Northam and Obama, while the band warmed up in a corner of the auditorium. When Jackson sang the first line of “A Change is Gonna Come”—“I was born by the river in a little tent”—the crowd shifted toward the sound.
A few people gasped, says Gilmore, “and everybody shut up and listened to Davina sing. That’s the power she has over a room.”
Jackson pauses while setting up her music stand to recall the memory—she grins, raises an eyebrow, and nods slowly at the thought.
After the gig, the group convened at a Richmond bar to talk about turning the act into an actual band. They needed a bass and keys, and Goradia and Holmes, respectively, came to mind immediately. “We purposely tried to find as diverse a group as we could, from different musical and cultural backgrounds, with the idea that we would have these songs, and then all of us would bring in our own traditions, our own styles, musical genres, and then see what came out of it,” says Gilmore.
Wild Common thought about dubbing itself an “Afro-Appalachian” act but even that felt too constricting. After all, genre doesn’t actually mean anything; it’s more limiting than it is descriptive. And so band members are quite satisfied when someone approaches them after a show to say, “I don’t know what to call your music.”
Ultimately, what matters most is the individual musician and the chemistry among them—“those unclassifiable elements of music that express from someone’s personality,” says Gilmore.
Wild Common plays songs about life and about love (“Downhill Specialist”), some of them told through the perspective of Daniel Leek, a young Sudanese refugee Gilmore met in Africa. Songs like “Mama Played the Snare Drum” and “The New Sudan” consider what it was like for the halcyon days of Leek’s youth to be interrupted by war.
Cover art by Ken Horne
The songs typically begin in a Gilmore- devised melody and chord progression, maybe some lyrics, too. From there, each band member puts his or her own fingerprint on it.
“It’s challenging, but it also feels very natural,” says Goradia of the resulting sound that’s a little bit of many things—bluegrass, country, jazz, folk, rock ‘n’ roll, reggae, funk, and soul.
It’s “a nice bed to walk through and see what happens,” says Leath, “and it’s always a lot of fun.”
Perhaps most importantly, adds Jackson, “everybody gets along,” and that’s evident from the way the band’s pre-practice banter oscillates between complimenting and teasing.
“That’s the biggest thing right there,” says Leath, nodding with enthusiasm as the Jacksons page through lyric sheets, Gilmore picks out a melody on his guitar, Goradia thumps a quiet line on her bass, and Holmes taps out something twinkly on the keyboards.
In Wild Common, everyone has their say. It’s the best kind of party, one where everyone’s invited.
Wild Common plays a 5:30pm set at Tomtoberfest on Saturday, September 29, at IX Art Park.