Profile: The Commonheart (2019)

Pittsburgh’s The Commonheart doesn’t sound like it belongs in 2019. There are the surefire signs, of course – the reverby chikka-chikka of Stax-style soul guitar, yes, as well as bobbing bass scales that hint at Chicago’s electric blues and the nostalgic trill of Hammond organs.

Then, there’s the man at the center of the nine-person band, Clinton Clegg, a bearded soothsayer who belts out soulful refrains with raspy howls that call to mind Joe Cocker at his finest. This is a musician you do not listen to sitting down. Clegg is an interesting cat, self-effacing and modest to a T while often seeming larger than life. When he stalks a stage, you notice.

But, speaking on the phone last week while getting an oil change at Wal-Mart in Pittsburgh’s Eastern suburbs – he was leaving for a gig in New York at 7 a.m. the next morning – Clegg is quick to joke about the very things that make him such a Pittsburgh commodity in the first place.

“I developed this rasp. It’s something that’s built over the years,” says Clegg, 38, of Brighton Heights, who is proudly not a singer of the overly polished variety. “There’s probably some voice instructors out there really rolling their eyes when they hear me sing.”

The Commonheart, which has toured as far as Montreal, Houston and San Francisco, formed about five years ago. They’re getting lots of attention – I mean, after all, this is the band that played the NFL Draft Day in 2018 – but most of the band members have kept their day jobs. Clegg, who studied what he jokes was “some boring, boring stuff” at Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP), works in IT in the Oakland area. The band’s saxophonist teaches at Pittsburgh CAPA.

The group now is touring the U.S. to promote its sophomore LP, titled Pressure, a 10-song romp of raw soul and classic R&B that Jullian Records released this summer. The Commonheart lands at Stage AE Nov. 9 to play its first Pittsburgh gig in many months. 

“This is a huge homecoming for us,” Clegg says. “Crowds in every city we go to have a little bit of a different identity. Denver and Colorado have some of the best music crowds I’ve seen, young people really hungry to come out and be part of the scene. And places like Austin, they have a built-in scene.”

What about playing a big venue in Pittsburgh like Stage AE, whose capacity is roughly double Mr. Small’s Funhouse in Millvale, where The Commonheart headlined a year ago?

“It’s really cool to play smaller rooms. There are special moments. But you bump elbows,” Clegg says. “[Playing a bigger venue] has a different energy level. We look at it differently. We do the sets differently. And we’re excited about it.”

Those attending the Stage AE gig can expect lots of crossover between the acts; Clegg estimates that the stage could see as many as 14 or 15 musicians playing at one time. And he stresses there’s a special chemistry to playing live on home turf.

“The band formed for just playing around here in Pittsburgh, getting to know the scene,” he says. “This is home, man.” – Justin Vellucci, Pittsburgh Current, Oct. 29, 2019

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