Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Inside Piano Blues

"Now when I say Get it, I Want you to Shake That Thing!"
[A brief overview of Blues Piano and the folks who played it]

At the turn of the century, the Eastern seaboard, from Virginia to Texas, was dotted with lumber camps. These lumber camps provided the raw materials needed to rebuild a nation that The Civil War had [at the very least] badly disfigured, or in the case of The South, literally reduced to ashes. Along with rebuilding, the nation was undergoing a great industrial revolution, necessitating the massive expansion of railroad systems. The need for timber had become a top priority, and a national chain of lumber camps grew up overnight.

The Lumber Camps
Although these camps were technically governed by state and federal laws, in reality, since they existed, many miles deep into the woods, and away from the rest of society; they functioned under their own laws, and were far less concerned with the moral fiber of their "citizens"; anyone willing to work long, grueling hours, under minimal safety considerations were welcomed. Often these camps were run by private companies, with little concern for the health and wellbeing of the lumberjacks; in turn, where you came from, your criminal records, etc., were of little concern, as long as you could swing an axe for ten hours a day. 

The Railroads
Long before the days of logging trucks, these camps depended on railroad lines to get their product to town. Indeed their entire existence revolved around the railroad. Aside from shipping timber, railroad cars were often used as dormitories, mess halls, and on weekends, hastily constructed saloons. These saloons featured untaxed whiskey served in large barrels, at least a couple boxcars worth of local working girls, and over in the corner, an upright piano. Very few of the lumberjacks were, musically inclined and the first circuit for itinerant piano players was born. These players played loud, fast and long; their left hand imitating the familiar chugging rhythm of the train, while the right hand often banged out simple counterpoint phrases.

The style was known by such colorful names as Dudlow Joe, Texas Stomp, Drive 'Em Down, and ultimately, Boogie Woogie. The men who played this style had equally colorful names: Romeo Nelson, Raghead, Three Finger Sam; There were very few named Neil. Most of them could fight as well as they played, and were often forced to when confronted by drunken patrons. In these places the piano man was more than just a musician: he told stories, relayed the latest news from other lumber camps, and often managed the financial affairs of the "working girls."

Rent Parties and Life in the City
Although the style may have originated in the lumber camps, it wasn't long before this rough, crude style found its way into the cities. Indeed, it became the favored style at rent parties, and in little hole-in-the-wall saloons. It was still looked down upon by more educated players, and wasn't even accepted in the brothels where Jazz and Stride were played. Boogie Woogie, and Blues piano grew up in the places where the pimps, prostitutes, and drug dealers went when they got off of work.

THE Concert
In 1938 Albert Ammons, Meade Lux Lewis and Pete Johnson performed at Carnegie Hall, a performance promoted by John Hammond, which started a whole new craze into blues piano, especially boogie woogie, lasting a long time into the period of the 50's....and the birth of Rock n' Roll. To me, the three above mentioned artists, are some of the greatest to ever live. Their blues style piano made its way into all of the prevalent music genres of the time; Swing, Jazz, Country etc. It was being heard everywhere - at President Harry Truman's inauguration, on TV and of course, the famous Cafe Society Club.

Sweet Home (to some)
As you can tell, I have affection, make that a passion for the blues and boogie woogie. However, when you mention blues piano to most blues fans, they traditionally think "Chicago Blues." It did come to Chicago with the Great Migration, a human TIDAL WAVE of 6.5 million Southern Blacks moving from the South up to "Sweet Home Chicago," and the other industrial cities of the North. Chicago became the home of a loud, raucous style, mainly due to the constant noise of the big city. Guitars and harmonicas were amplified and the piano became an integral part of the band, a supportive instrument, with licks and fills derived from boogie woogie. It often served in call and response patterns with the singer or guitarist, and every piano player had his [or her] own, in the words of Sunnyland Slim, 'Trickerations." Only the strong survived. These players were not art school graduates looking to play authentic "roots" music. For most of them, music was only one more means of survival, and the least likely to land you in jail. Sunnyland was a moonshiner, several were professional gamblers, and many of them served, once again, as 'financial managers," for young women fresh from the country. No matter what their side occupation, when it came to piano, they didn't fool around. You quickly knew where you stood during this period. The best rose to the top, not only because they were just better, but because certain bands, who knew they could do a better job, would literally take over your gig at pistol point, or with a knife in your back. It was cut throat, literally. A few notable Chicago blues piano players include Jimmy Yancey, Roosevelt Sykes, Sunnyland Slim, Lfayette Leake, Memphis Slim, Otis Spann, Big Maceo, Little Brother Montgomery, and Pinetop Perkins.

From the Lumber Camps to the Suburbs of Savannah
It was a family gathering on a Spring Sunday afternoon when I was first invited to play publicly. I was 10 years old and after being ushered up to the piano, I nervously fumbled my way through the classic "Fur Elise." As I finished playing, I was welcomed by loud applause, hoots, hollers and whistles all around; except from my Grandfather Jesse Wainwright. He was not the least bit impressed. Having played the piano his entire life, boogie woogie and honky tonk, he was almost displeased by what he heard and said a few things to me that I can't repeat here as he walked over and sat next to me on the piano. His left hand slammed down on the piano, interrupting the warm family support, growling and rumbling like thunder. His right hand started to fiercely attack the upper register, jack-hammering the notes with the confidence that only 50 plus years of playing beer joints can produce. He smiled as he watched my reaction, no words were necessary, he knew I was hooked.

Blues piano is an aural, as well as an oral tradition, now passed along mostly from mentors to apprentices. My Grandfather and Father were my first musical mentors. 

The legendary Pinetop Perkins is of course very close to my heart as well, for the simple fact that I got to see him perform so many times as a child. I also got to play and just hang out with him over the past few years, him showing me things on the piano I didn't think could be possible, and I felt I could call him a friend. 

As with my family, and the late Pinetop, they made it a point to pass along a tradition, much like Sunnyland Slim and the Reverend Billy C.
Wirtz. The Reverend is definitely a mentor of mine, as well as a dear  friend who I've learned a great deal from, and played many nights with, but before Billy C. Wirtz was showing me the intricacies of blues ballads and eight-to-the-bar stand up on the stool and shout it boogie woogie, he was himself being mentored by the amazing piano player legend Sunnyland Slim. 

My good friend Eden Brent, another fantastic blues piano player, was apprenticing under the late great blues pioneer Boogaloo Ames, giving her the moniker "Little Boogaloo." 

David Maxwell, yet another friend to us all, and maybe the greatest living blues piano player I know, was friends with and learned much from the one and only Otis Spann. And so, the torch stays lit.

As with blues music as a whole, the best way you can ensure that this tradition keeps being passed from generation to generation, is to come out and see it live!  September 9th-11th, is your chance to catch a whole bucket full of blues piano. The Second Annual South Florida Boogie Woogie Piano Festival, will be packed full of GREAT piano players, playing a wide variety of styles within the blues genre. It's being hosted by another friend of ours, Piano Bob, a great gentleman and fantastic piano player. 

It's going to be my honor to headline Sunday night, September 11th, the tenth anniversary of an unspeakable tragedy that changed all our lives forever. This will be more than just a gig; It will be a perfect night for the blues as we remember those whom we lost, and a great night to celebrate the spirit that keeps us smiling though our tears. It is occasions like this that remind us that great music is not a luxury, it is a necessity.

In the words of the late poet Fran Landesman:
Music starts us weeping
When no one is around
Music fills the darkness
With visions made of sound

Music travels with us
A witness and a crutch
Music reaches places
That nothing else can touch

See you There!
Victor Wainwright and The Reverend Billy C. Wirtz  

Lit Up! Review by Vinny Marini!

On 'Lit Up,' Victor Wainwright and the Wildroots take you on a joyous aural journey from the back porches of the Georgia hills to the bayous of Louisiana with stopovers in the jazz clubs of New Orleans, the R&B clubs of Memphis & Chicago and juke joints throughout the world.

Steven Dees on bass, acoustic guitar, percussion (and writing credits on 11 of the 14 songs) and Billy Dean on drums are the rich soil from which Greg Gumpel's guitars and Wainwright's keys can blossom. 

Also included in the Wildroots are Patricia Ann Dees on tenor sax and backing vocals and Ray Guiser on tenor sax and clarinet and they skillfully help set the different moods displayed throughout this gem.  Greg Gumpel proves a New York boy can play the blues with his electric guitar and Resonator guitar-work throughout 'Lit Up.' 

What you get from Victor Wainwright is ever single atom of his soul.  With 'Lit Up,' Wainwright proves he deserves to be in the same sentence with the great blues-boogie piano players of  today.  Victor also shows the range of vocal-stylings he has mastered; leading juke joint call and repeats, channeling the great soul singers of all time and growling the blues.

'Lit Up' is going to take Victor Wainwright and the Wildroots straight up."
Vinny Bond Marini

Monday, August 8, 2011

RootsTime Reviews "Lit Up!"

In their new album, Victor Wainwright and the WildRoots mix an almost perfect amount of latent humor, vitality, untamed fun with some hints of sadness in between with songs like the sublime 'Our Last-Goodbye'. After their acclaimed debut, "Beale Street To The Bayou", you could already predict that we wouldn't have to wait too long for more because, music is obviously in their blood.

They've added a new drummer, Billy Dean, but the rest of the band remain an unchanged enthusiastic bunch with Greg Gumpel on resonator and electric guitar, and bassist/acoustic guitarist/percussionist Stephen Dees in the starring role of co-writer and producer. Patricia Ann Dees and Ray Guiser on tenor saxophones, were also incorporated into the WildRoots. Additional guest musicians add to their engaging "power-house Blues sound.

Victor's piano is the key, to what makes 'Lit Up' so special. Underneath those rolling piano keys we also hear a generous portion of New Orleans in the mix with the Blues and Memphis soul. The lyrics encompass breakup, agricultural, urban and philosophical themes. Cheerfulness is mixed with melancholy. From the swinging 'Little Ole' Shack's sinful pleasure, to the delightful and enchanting, "Weeds," with Ray Guiser's and Charlie DeChant's clarinet and saxcello, you think of depicting a harvest scene from Jean-Francois Millet.

You can hear influences of Hound Dog Taylor, Professor Longhair, Albert Ammons, Pinetop Perkins and - why not - Leon Redbone, and Randy Newman, in the last track the intimate "Let It Be The Same". In terms of a favorite, it is difficult to choose between 'Subliminal Criminal' and the irresistible 'Lit Up'. Or even the repentant "Pile Of Blues". In "Our Last Goodbye," he sings in a yearning aching voice in which the pain is still glowing with the guitar and seems to cry. Yet the pride of top place goes to "Dixie Highway" and not just because of the Resonator Guitar. It's like Wainwright's, soulful and authentic singing voice, just lingers in that kind of retro Delta/Mississippi blues history.

Boogie-woogie and soul alternate with each other and the dynamics are equal to anything recorded at Sun Records [Memphis], or St Cosimo Recording Studios [New Orleans]. This "Lit Up!" Album at the same time gives back atmosphere typical of the better barrelhouse establishments, where Big Mamacita's running the business, and the music guides are marked with four stars.



"Lit Up!" Reviewed by the ToledoBlade

LIT UP Victor Wainwright & The WildRoots (WildRoots Records)
"Lit Up" will light up your senses with 14 original numbers and more than 53 minutes of powerful Memphis blues, heavy on the rock and soul. The sound and approach are both fresh throughout, featuring Wainwright playing some hot piano alongside an earnest, slightly gruff voice born to sing the blues.

The five core members of the band are tight, whether doing backup vocals or stretching their talents on bass, guitar, saxophones, and percussion. They get a boost on some tracks by guest musicians on sax, harmonica, organ, clarinet, trombone, and trumpet.

From the jump blues strains of the opening "Big Dog's Runnin' This Town" to the loping, soulful, clarinet-backed "Dixie Highway," the rocking beat of "Little Ole Shack," the mournful Delta strains of "Pile of Blues," among others, Wainwright and the crew offer something new and exciting in every number.
Wainwright wrote or co-wrote nine of these gems; producer/writer Stephen Dees gets creative credit on 12. These fellows make a great team when it comes to being innovative in a genre that too often sounds repetitive. "Lit Up" is a knockout album that runs the gamut of blues styles with no weaknesses.

Cascade Blues Association Reviews "Lit Up!"

Do you love blues and you want a CD that is going to satisfy your tastes in a variety of styles? Well let’s just say that your expectations will probably be met with this new recording from Victor Wainwright & The Wildroots. For Victor’s fourth release, he has explored several options and approaches; and they all work very nicely here, giving good reason to verify the thoughts of many who consider Wainwright to be one of the most promising young performers out there today.

A former Floridian now calling Memphis his home, Wainwright is a ferocious pianist with a voice that easily rises above a full band. He can boogie the house down or lead the pack in a Louis Jordan-inspired number with horns, or raise the hairs on your neck with a low-down blues. His versatility cannot be overlooked.

Fourteen tracks, all of them originals, most written by Wainwright, his bass player Stephen Dees, or a combination of the two. The song “Coin Operated Woman” was co-written with Wainwright’s longtime guitarist Greg Gumpel, and even old friend Billy C. Wirtz adds a hand in the writing of the song “Honky Tonk Heaven.” And I have to add that not a number on this disc lets down the musical quality and flow at any time; they’re all really terrific and performed by The Wildroots with outright perfection.

There is a lot to really like here. The song “Weeds” comes across as a Tom Waits number; “Little Ole’ Shack” has a Louis Jordan feel; “Big Dog’s Runnin’ This Town” is pure and simply a boogie piece that kicks a lot of fun and will have toes tappin’ in no time. “Dixie Highway” is an acoustic song that finds Gumpel on a resonator guitar and droning harmonica from guest Mark “Muddyharp” Hodgson; and it contains a gentle Delta flavored pace. The piano and horn interplay on “Subliminal Criminal” may sound a lot like something you’d hear from Dr. John, then act like a big band in the slow-churning “Walk Away My Blues” while Wainwright tickles the keys. But as much as they may remind you of others, this is all Victor Wainwright and his presence will hook you as well. Just give it a listen and pretty soon you’ll discover that you’ve stepped into a big pile of blues. You will be pleasantly thrilled with this one.

Total Time: 53:18

Big Dog’s Runnin’ This Town / Ting Tang Bang / Subliminal Criminal / Walk Away My Blues / Dixie Highway / Weeds / Little Ole’ Shack / Lit Up! / Our Last Goodbye / Don’t Doubt It ‘ce est bon’ / Coin Operated Woman / Pile Of Blues / Honky Tonk Heaven / Let It Be The Same

Reviewed by Greg Johnson

FolkWorld Review of "Lit Up!"

The fourth and last album comes from singer and pianist Victor Wainwright and the Wild Roots. I liked his former album a lot,[41] and it’s like this amazing musician continues where the debut album ended. Wainwright amazes me again with an energetic mix of blues, rock, folk, jazz and so many other styles. Where the other two artists I wrote about in this review stay closer to the better known traditional ways of playing, Wainwright gives it full speed and creates, together with his fine band, a full and rich sound that makes me want to move my body and enjoy it with my eyes closed at the same time. You got to love this!
© Eelco Schilder

FolkWorld #45 07/2011

Review of "Lit Up!" by

Look out blues fans! There's a new CD on the shelf of your local music store, and if you really consider yourself a fan of the blues then it needs to be on your shelf too. Lit Up! by Victor Wainwright and the WildRoots will light you up for sure. Each song is well written and executed, and reveals a remarkable variety of styles considering that all of the songs are so 'true blues'.

There is a little something special on nearly every track. The electric guitar on “Our Last Goodbye” screams out the blues as loud and clear as Wainwright's gritty vocals. It's as good a slow blues tune as you'll hear on a new recording this year, I'll wager. The piano work on the title track “Lit Up!” is a fantastic mix of boogie and blues, with lots of tasty licks. The dialogue between the guitar and harmonica on “Pile of Blues” comes across like the musical equivalent of two drinking buddies just laughing their backsides off while Wainwright sings out about his misfortune.

The blues have been around just as long as human misery. The themes are familiar to us all. That means it's hard to write and sing blues music that is fresh, while staying true to the roots of the tradition. Well, the WildRoots and Mr. Wainwright have the Memphis Blues sounding better that it has in a good little while, so don't miss out on it!
Key Tracks- Lit Up!, Our Last Goodbye, Pile Of Blues
Donny Harvey- Staff