Like other younger contemporary ensembles, The Wildmans tend to freely explore their music with a flexibility and finesse that pays little heed to preset boundaries or any textbook trappings. Although they certainly bear the proper credentials — an Appalachian birthright, repeated appearances on any number of fine festival stages, and the individual expertise that allows them to hold their own in the company of hallowed headliners — their music is conveyed with an unassuming style that owes its only obligation to honesty and exuberance.
A family band consisting of siblings Aila and Eli Wildman on fiddle and mandolin respectively, their childhood friend, banjo player Victor Furtado, and upright bassist Sean Newman, they’ve accumulated enough individual honors to crowd a mantel without leaving any space to spare. Indeed, it’s well worth considering their credentials — Eli Wildman’s two first place wins in the mandolin competition at the Galax Old Fiddler’s convention and three first place wins at the Mount Airy Fiddler’s gathering, Aila Wildman’s top prize at the Old Time Fiddle festival and nod for Best All Around Performer at the aforementioned Galax Old Fiddlers convention, Furtado’s 2019 Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo, and his own first place showings at Galax in 2015, 2016, and 2019.
That’s a lot of talent to find in any single ensemble.
As our own Bluegrass Today editor John Lawless noted in the liner notes that accompany the band’s eponymous debut, the Wildmans are apt to surprise the unsuspecting.
For one thing, they take the unusual step of eschewing guitar from their arrangements, the one exception being Dori Freeman’s one-off contribution to her own sprightly Rid My Mind. However the bigger revelation here is how they take any number of well-worn standards, be it Bob Dylan’s You’re Going to Make Me Lonesome When You Go, striking instrumentals such as Richmond and Garfield’s Blackberry Blossom, or the traditional tune, Sitting On Top of the World, and reinvent them with such fervor and passion. Dylan’s lonesome lament rings with an exuberance hardly hinted at in the original. The fiddle frenzy exhibited in their rapid fire workouts is truly dazzling, while their take on that oft covered blues classic takes on an entirely new, yet still mournful meaning.
Likewise, when they venture into songs of lesser known origin, an unlikely medley of Furtado’s own Monster Ride and Gillian Welch and David Rawlings’Rock of Ages being one ideal example, the effect is nothing less than mesmerizing.
Ultimately, the Wildmans can claim an exceptional initial entry, one that not only sets a high standard for themselves, but for any other contemporary combo intent on making their mark in grassicana as well. Needless to say, we should all look forward to more.