A few days later, Jones is enjoying a Sierra Nevada and playing fetch with his dog, Nesta, in the band’s rehearsal space, a converted North Side ministorage space. Like his bandmates Austin Stalnaker and Ryan Rice, Jones grew up in Richmond. He was singing at Hanover Avenue Christian Church from an early age. In later years, he graduated to Led Zeppelin (“Robert Plant’s definitely my biggest vocal influence,” he says) and Metallica. Then he heard Bob Marley.
“For me, reggae music is the best music for making people happy,” Jones says. Marley led him to Toots and the Maytals, then to Burning Spear and Peter Tosh. He began growing his dreads when he was 18, and now they reach to his waist. His favorite current reggae act is John Brown’s Body, an upstate New York collective with which Crucial Elements will be playing with Friday, Oct. 24, at the Canal Club. He loves going hiking with Nesta, eats only “unmurdered food,” and only gets upset when he thinks about people going hungry. Jones isn’t a Rastafarian. “I have no religion to push,” he says. “It seems like the majority of people in religion don’t have a connection with God.”
Crucial Elements formed out of the ashes of several area reggae bands. Drummer Chucky Love, whose exquisite high harmonies carry Stalnaker and Jones’ lyrics to greater heights than a local band should be allowed, was in Awareness Art Ensemble and Jah Revelations. Keyboardist Kwan Burke, a Virginia Commonwealth University music-education graduate, played trumpet for any number of ska bands here and in his native Northern Virginia before bonding with Rice over a shared love of BMX bikes. Together about two and a half years, they’ve played regularly in Richmond for most of that time and were a regular attraction at the Boulevard Deli for a couple years. But now they’re looking to branch out. No member of Crucial Elements seems to have any illusions about getting rich, but getting on a rock bill once in a while might be nice.
“We’re far apart from the traditional sound of reggae,” Burke says. “If venues have a rock band playing, they don’t want to throw us in there.” In practical terms, this either means a slow slog building word-of-mouth regionally on their own (“Are you going to drive four hours to play for nobody?” is how Rice describes the other option.) or partnering with likeminded bands. But as much as they’d love to tour with John Brown’s Body, Burke says reggae’s niche in the music world is small enough that even that band’s success probably isn’t enough to lift all boats. “They tour all the time,” he says of John Brown’s Body “But I don’t think their crowd’s big enough.”
Fortunately, Richmond has an active, if small reggae scene that might eventually be able to leverage some strength in numbers. The eight-piece Richmond Dub Collective enjoys a weekly residency at Emilio’s Tapas Bar on Broad Street. Hafiza Yellow Moon, the Dub Collective’s flutist and vocalist, says that getting pigeonholed as a reggae act hasn’t really been a problem for her group. “But I know what Crucial’s talking about,” she says. “It all depends where you’re trying to go with it.” Her band has had success playing with the bluegrass of Special Ed and the Shortbus Band, she notes, and they’ve done a few shows with local rap group We Be I. “The crowd loved it,” she says of the latter. And anyway, the Dub Collective has been together only a year. “We haven’t really sought out bigger venues in terms of opening up for other bands,” Yellow Moon says. “We’re just trying to take this year, get ourselves together and do things.”
Next month Crucial Elements and the Richmond Dub Collective, along with fellow local up-and-comers One will share a stage at the Canal Club. It will be a good opportunity to share audiences and ideas, and maybe even open up some opportunities in the larger reggae scenes in Tidewater and D.C.
But the real prize will go to the band that figures out how to unite this somewhat hippie-ish reggae scene with the surprising amount of island music that quietly goes on in Richmond. Local reggae crew Flava Mix hosts a regular Sunday night dance hall — a harder, more club-oriented style of reggae — event at the Canal Club, and each summer there’s a big “Summer Sunsplash” festival on Brown’s Island. And South Side’s wonderfully named Caribbean Pot restaurant is a nexus for tropical expats and frequently features live music alongside salt fish and turtle soup.
Perhaps Crucial Elements will discover the proverbial glue needed to bring all these scenes together. Or maybe they’ll eventually fade into weekend warrior status, consumed with mortgages and families. But as their Cary Street set on this Oct. 10 night approaches its midpoint, and they spring from a cover of Peter Tosh’s “Legalize It” into an epic original tune called “Tables Turned,” they’ve whipped the crowd into a frenzy their hero Toots would be proud to have authored. It’s near midnight, they’re not going anywhere till a quarter of 2, and Wiley Jones has been up since 6:30 a.m. Still, he’s grinning like a lunatic at the writhing Fan mass. “Thank y’all,” he says, and Crucial Elements takes a break. S
Reggae comes to The Canal Club Oct. 24. with John Brown’s Body, Spookie Daly Pride and Crucial Elements. Tickets are $8 and can be purchased at the door. Doors open at 9 p.m. www.thecanalclub.com.
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