The early Wednesday evening show at Southside, a beer garden in Winston-Salem’s Washington Park neighborhood, started as a residency for David Brewer, ringmaster of the western North Carolina roots music scene by virtue of his role as participant in numerous acts, festival director, booking agent and sometime bartender.
While Brewer has carte blanche to do whatever he wants with the first Wednesday of every month at the Southside Beer Garden & Bottle Shop, on the this particularly first Wednesday in May the show defaults to a concert by Possum Jenkins, Brewer’s flagship project and the anchor for an extended musical family that includes Wurlitzer Prize and Greensboro singer-songwriter Molly McGinn. Breaking with usual practice, they’re foregoing a setlist. If the show has the feel of an informal jam session, that’s partially by design: Brewer has the notion that they’ll try out some new material and break out solo sets with the band’s three songwriters as a kind of rehearsal for an upcoming date in Elkin that will be billed as the “Carolina Ramble Revue.”
With full sunlight shining through a raised garage door and a view of tidy, lower-middle class bungalows lining South Broad Street behind them, the band works through a handful of tunes. Their originals, like the rollicking boogie “Magdeline” from the 2012 album Carolinacana, are good enough and their covers are performed with such a distinctive style that they feel like they’re cut from the same fabric. Dave Willis’ laconic and loose reading of the blues standard “Sitting on Top of the World” suggests Merle Haggard, while Brewer transforms the 1980 Nashville hit “Lesson in Leavin’” into an alt-country burner with dirt under its fingernails.
After about 30 minutes, Brewer tells his bandmates: “Y’all take five,” and straps on an acoustic guitar. As Brewer shifts into a more introspective and soul-baring mode, his four bandmates step outside and light up smokes, sharing the bar’s front yard with a patron pitching cornhole. When Brewer strikes up a familiar tune, Brent Buckner takes notice and leans through the open window to blow some harp as accompaniment.
When the full band regroups around 8 p.m. and dusk descends, the bartender activates a disco ball. For a brief stretch, the floor fills with dancers — a couple expertly executing spins, a young boy jubilantly bouncing in tow with his mama and a host of others flinging their arms out in declarations of joy.
The three songwriters each bring a different sensibility to band’s signature backwoods stew of country boogie, blues and gospel, with Brewer playing the genial convener and soul channeler, Willis as the laconic blues interpreter and Nathan Turner as the plainsong belter. All three are able guitarists, and they all rotate through drum duties. Bass player Jared Church, who contributes an unshakable low end, and Brent Buckner, whose raw sheets of harmonica carry the high register, provide the alloy that prevents the band from being just a collection of solo acts.
The informal family-style spirit carries through the evening, with Buckner periodically stepping out of lineup mid-song to embrace old friends in the audience.
Brewer’s between-song patter pings between showbiz formalities — introducing Turner: “Please give him a round of applause, ladies and gentlemen. Make him feel good” — and idle chatter — he asks audience members if they remember a particularly inspired and loud Alvin “Youngblood” Hart show at the now-defunct Rubber Soul; they do. At one point Brewer calls out from behind the drum set to venue owner Josh Ball, who’s seated at the end of the bar: “I need to talk to you about Jerry Garcia’s birthday in July.”
A livelihood as a musician for Brewer means playing in about 10 bands. In addition to Possum, they include Dave Brewer’s Foscoe Four, the Worthless Son-in-Laws, Soul Benefactor, the King Bees, the Junaluska Gospel Choir and Telco, along with a Grateful Dead project called Dead of Winter and backing an artist named Earline. He books music for the Blowing Rock Draught House & Brewery in Hickory and the Boone Saloon, as well as tending bar three nights a week at the latter establishment. Brewer serves as director for the annual Carolina Ramble and Reunion outside of Boone. And he runs a nonprofit called the Boone Amen Corner that provides assistance to musicians in need.
Possum Jenkins performs at Craft City Sip-In, located at 2130 New Garden Road in Greensboro, on Friday at 7:30 p.m.
The songs burrow into a collective muscle memory through repetition.
“We could easily play whole shows of only original material; certainly we do at times like to put greater emphasis on our own songs,” Brewer says in an interview. “But when you are a bar band you have to fill the hours, and sometimes you have to play stuff people know. But we fail terribly at that because most of the covers we play are not well known. It’s not that Alejandro Escovedo and Taj Mahal are not well known; they have not had smash hits. We just love the tunes. You get together with your pals and play the tunes that you love.
“That’s the concept of folk music,” Brewer adds. “That’s how music passed from group to band, and generation to generation. I’m sure there have been many proud musicians, but music wouldn’t get passed along if they refused to play other people’s stuff.”
At the Southside on Wednesday night, 10 o’clock is quitting time for the band.
“Here’s one to send you into the second half of the week with a smile on your face and a song in your heart,” Brewer says.
He pauses, and one of his bandmates cracks, “What song is that?”