I’m ashamed to say I had never been to a reggae show before shooting this concert. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no stranger to the fusion margins of the genre—jam bands and folk festivals aplenty have assured that—it’s just that reggae proper had never quite grabbed me before. Leilani Wolfgramm reeled me in.
Hailing from the streets of Orlando, Florida but writing and singing about universal themes of pleasure, pain, satisfaction, and struggle, she wields her voice like a weapon and keen insight like salve. With a presence that punches above the weight of her lean frame, she commands your attention, admiration, and respect from the moment she struts onstage or one of her hooks worms its way into your ear. After picking up music at an early age then performing with her brothers’ band for a time, she went solo in 2014, releasing her label debut Rebel the same year. From that record came breakout single “Herbivore,” along with media attention and critical consideration.
After years on the road supporting Rebel—playing with bands like Incubus, Ziggy Marley, Tribal Seeds, and more—she returned to the studio to lay down sophomore effort Live Wire (2018). While reggae may have a deservedly happy-go-lucky reputation, Leilani delves into personal struggles and family tragedy to deliver a musical memoir that flips the genre on its head.
While the songs on Live Wire can be challenging, they don’t give in to despair, instead applying honesty to difficulty—but also to hope. As Leilani explains: “I write music to celebrate being alive. The good, the bad, the happy, the sad—all the lessons I’ve learned.”
Good God, I’m sinner— thicker when the blood floods, so I make it thinner. Love comes slow— baby, I can’t get it quicker, so I put my heart straight into the liquor. My heart broke the bottle, and it feels better than I thought it would. And I lose better than I thought I could.
– “Sinner” from Live Wire (2018)
Her show at Vinyl in Las Vegas, Nevada started with a bang: the staccato bass of “Sinner” pulsing through the venue as the band appeared in front of stuttering strobes, and Leilani’s voice tore through the fog, breaking occasionally with emotion and effort. From there, we were off like a shot as she bounced and bounded around the stage for the next hour and a half.
The set was weighted toward songs from Live Wire but didn’t leave Rebel behind, notably featuring a medley of tunes orchestrated around “Herbivore.” Other highlights included animated performances of the self-effacing “Heaven” and “Bipolar” back-to-back, as well as a cranked-to-eleven rendition of empowerment anthem “Without Condition.”
In her songs and performance, Wolfgramm is both hero and villain—as we are each ourselves: a fractured whole. But in being honest about the divide, she comes out stronger, more convicted (and convicting) than any blind optimism could afford.
With no new dates on the books at the moment, keep an eye out to catch Leilani live—you’ll be glad you did.
* Bonus Gallery *
CULTURE (counter, pop, and otherwise) and the people who shape it.