George Graham reviews "The Wildmans"
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The Graham Album Review #2042

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The Wildmans: The Wildmans
by George Graham

(Independent Release as broadcast on WVIA-FM 9/29/2020)

On this album review series, we have noted a fair number of family bands with recent releases, some with spouses with their marriage brought on by their musician association; as well as sibling bands, and sometimes multi-generational bands. Bluegrass seems to be especially conducive to the formation of family bands, going back to the Carter Family, the Stanley Brothers, the Del McCoury Band, Nickel Creek, and Cherryholmes. This week, we have the debut release of a young group from Virginia formed around two siblings, The Wildmans. Their new album is also called The Wildmans.

Fiddle player and lead vocalist Aila Wildman, and mandolinist Eli Wildman have been been playing since an early age. Eli Wildman started playing guitar at age seven, but soon switched to mandolin. Since 2018, he has won numerous bluegrass and old-timey music competitions at festivals. He is currently studying at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. His 17-year-old sister Aila was, at age 15, the youngest winner of a fiddle contest at the Galax Old Time Fiddler’s convention in Virginia. They are joined by banjo player Victor Furtado, also still in his teens, playing a hybrid-looking acoustic-electric banjo, and on bass is Sean Newman, who started playing electric bass in rock bands at age 14, but has become a multi-instrumentalist and been concentrating on acoustic bass with the Wildmans.

Besides their youth – and there have been quite a few bluegrass prodigies over the years – the Wildmans are distinctive in that they are a bluegrass band without a guitar. But they achieve a full sound and are notably eclectic, with music than runs from traditional old-timey fiddle tunes, to more sophisticated New Acoustic-styled music to a cover of a bluesy Tedeschi-Trucks band tune. Their musicianship is impressive, but not overly showy as one might expect from such a young band who might be anxious to impress. Aila Wildman is an appealing vocalist, who can handle the range from traditional to contemporary. Her brother Eli, together with Furtado and Newman contribute backing vocals. There are also some guests, including a drummer/percussionist, who adds another distinctive aspect to this group, allowing the band to slip into a less traditional mode, while still maintaining the acoustic sound.

Opening is their cover of Bob Dylan’s You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go. Nick Falk appears on drums, with the band doing a mix of rock and old-timey elements, anchored by Aila’s fiddle. <<>>

The group goes full old-timey on the traditional tune Richmond. The Wildmans’ instrumentation is just right for this hoe-down style track. <<>>

From there, the group serves up the old traditional blues tune Sitting on Top of the World which has had incarnations as an electric blues by the band Cream, and as a bluegrass version as done by Doc Watson. The Wildmans combine elements of both, with Furtado’s banjo given a more electric sound, while Eli’s mandolin evokes traditional folk. <<>>

For a bluegrass band, The Wildmans include some extended tunes on their album. Perhaps most impressive is a medley of an original instrumental by Victor Furtado called Monster Ride with the Gillian Welch-David Rawlings tune Rock of Ages. The pieces blend well, in a kind of jam-band sequence. <<>>

A further departure is the song Lost Man in a Foreign Country a cover tune which is given almost a bossa nova beat. <<>>

The Wildmans go country on the tune Rid My Mind, a song by one Dori Freeman, who appears on the track doing backing vocals and providing the one instance of guitar on the album. <<>>

The Tedeschi-Trucks Band tune that the Wildmans cover is Midnight in Harlem and they do a very respectable job. At age 17, Aila Wildman does a nicely soulful vocal. The banjo, fiddle and mandolin accompaniment works surprisingly well. <<>>

The album ends with an instrumental by Eli called Falling Up which again shows the band’s eclectic approach, a kind of jam-band take on old-timey Appalachian folk. <<>>

The Wildmans, the eponymous debut release by the teenaged acoustic quartet led by siblings Aila and Eli Wildman, is an enjoyable and impressive album that shows the group’s first-rate musicianship and copious eclecticism, with music running from traditional fiddle tunes to a soulful rock song. Their configuration without a guitar is also distinctive, giving even their rock and pop oriented songs a kind of traditional old-timey ambiance.

Our grade for sound quality is close to an “A” with the acoustic instruments captured warmly, and even Victor Furtado’s hybrid banjo sounding like a fully acoustic instrument. Aila’s vocals are also clean and largely unfettered by studio effects.

There have been a lot of bluegrass family bands over the years, and there have also been quite a few youthful bluegrass prodigies. The Wildmans combine both aspects in a satisfying album that also boasts some distinctive musical facets.

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