“This is my last band,” Clegg says in earnest. “I’m just not gonna stop. If other people make life decisions or whatever — this band is gonna keep going with me. As long as I’m standing.”
Eyebrows around the room remain unraised. This is news to no one. And it’s part of what drives the band: Aside from being The Commonheart’s gritty and powerful voice, Clegg is its engine, and the glue that keeps it together. And when things fall apart — and they have — he picks up the pieces and keeps the band on track. That’s what’s gotten The Commonheart to where it is now: On the eve of the release of its first full-length, Grown, the ensemble has a rapidly growing local fan base thanks to a few sweet gigs and a good bit of legwork through its first two years.
It might look like an overnight success from a distance, but it’s one that has a decade of hard work behind it. Clegg came up playing open mics around town, first crossing paths with Commonheart guitarist Mikey DeLuca when both hosted the same open stage on alternating weeks. (In a musical meet-cute, someone got mixed up and showed up the wrong week.)
Then Clegg fronted jam-flavored rock band Backstabbing Good People, which found a measure of success before breaking up, suffering from what Clegg characterizes as a lack of musical focus — and perhaps too many frontmen. While Clegg went on to found The Commonheart, Backstabbing’s keyboardist, Max Somerville, went forth to form Wreck Loose, another rock band with a growing group of devotees locally.
“That was the best thing that ever happened to Max,” Clegg notes, referring to Wreck Loose. “And also to our friendship: Max and I are closer than ever.”
The Commonheart hasn’t been so shabby for Clegg and company, either. Originally a relatively normal-sized rock band, The Commonheart began with Clegg and a few friends: Glenn Strother (formerly of Backstabbing Good People), Buddy Rieger and guitarist Arianna Powell. Powell left to tour with the likes of Nick Jonas — The Commonheart isn’t holding it against her — and the lineup slowly shifted. And grew.
“I can’t really say it enough: Next thing I know, I wake up and I have 10 people in my band,” Clegg says with a laugh.
Old friend and acoustic guitarist DeLuca and Backstabbing Good People drummer Shawn McGregor join him in the ensemble. Bassist Ava Lintz, keyboardist Lucas Bowman and guitarist Mike Minda round out the traditional rock-band lineup. Then come the winds: trumpeter Nate Insko, saxophonist Abby Gross and flutist Jess Hohman, who, along with Stephanie Ballard, also provides backup vocals.
The point, early on, wasn’t to have a huge band — it was to have a focused one.
“Our drummer, Shawn McGregor, and I were talking, and we really wanted to do a band that was just mega-focused on a sound,” Clegg explains. “We don’t want to be a band that doesn’t have a genre-specific sound. With Backstabbing, we had a reggae song, we had a rock song — it was all over the place in terms of genre. We were like, ‘Let’s really build a band around my voice.’”
For all the grandiosity of its nine-piece sound, The Commonheart is still driven by Clegg’s voice. Powerful, rough, but precise, it fits right into a rock world that’s celebrating blues-driven acts like Alabama Shakes and Gary Clark Jr., the latter of whom provided The Commonheart’s biggest opening gig yet this past summer.
While opening for Clark got The Commonheart some good exposure with an audience that would appreciate its sound, it was just one piece in what could be seen as the perfect Pittsburgh publicity campaign this year. The band was a fixture on the Pirates’ “Friday Night Rocks” features, beamed into homes throughout the region on Root Sports on Friday nights, and performing live on Federal Street for a baseball crowd. And the band has made appearances on WDVE’s morning show, in addition to collaborating at times with co-host Randy Baumann, himself an accomplished keyboardist with an ear for classic rock and soul.
At times it feels like the stars are aligning for The Commonheart, whose down-to-earth bluesy riffs and growling vocals offset slick production to create an ideal balance on the 11-track Grown. The band brings its first full-length into a music world that’s primed by throwback soul and blues artists who have lately stolen the rock spotlight. It’s coming into its own in a local music infrastructure with radio and TV outlets that can beam the band’s polished sounds to a general audience.
But the real key is in the band’s focus. Grown is an album, not just a collection of songs, just as The Commonheart is a band (albeit a big one), not just a collection of musicians. As the band prepares to ramp up its prominence in the local music world, and perhaps beyond, it serves as a lesson for up-and-coming artists: Stick with it, hone your efforts, surround yourself with the right people, and perhaps after a decade or so of hard work, you, too, will be an overnight success.