Music Review: Victor Wainwright And The WildRoots - From Beale Street To The Bayou
There's a tendency these days to forget that rock and roll music can be fun and doesn't have to be about "serious" matters. Us critics can be the worst for that with our penchant for doing in depth analysis of lyrics and looking for hidden meanings under every bass line and chord progression. I dread to think how much all that is us trying to make our subject sound more important then it really is to inflate our own importance. I mean we're not taking about high art here folks, we're talking about down and dirty rock and roll - stuff that smells of sweat, cigarette smoke, and whisky.
All we have to do is think back to the early days of the music and lyrics like "Be bop be lula", "Whole lotta shakin' going on", or "Tutti Frutti - all rutti" to remember it was fun and nonsense first and foremost. Of course that made it dangerous to the establishment because it encouraged abandonment and frivolous behaviour, although I'm sure most people's objections to it in the 1950's was the sexual innuendo inherent in its name. Anyway, it's always good to be reminded that rock and roll is fun and doesn't need any other justification for its existence than to ensure that we'll have a good time listening to it.
Victor Wainwright And The WildRoots' new release, Beale Street To The Bayou, is just such a creature, as the fourteen tracks on the disc capture that spirit of abandonment and fun quite unlike other recordings that I've heard in a while. Not only that, they don't just stick to playing one style of rock and roll either, for as the title suggests they've latched on to various inspirations for these songs. One song might have some gospel flavour, while another you can hear rock and roll's country roots shining through, and yet another smacks strongly of the Mississippi Delta. What's even better is that none of the songs sound like any of those influences were pre-meditated. If there's a gospel flavour to a tune its only because that's what worked with the lyrics, not because somebody said we should write a gospel tune.
What's great about this band is not only are they completely comfortable playing any of the styles above, but they do so without making any sort of big deal out of it. They play this music because they enjoy and love doing so and its bloody obvious when you listen to them. While the core of the group is composed of only four members; Victor Wainwright (Vocals, keyboards, harmonica), Stephen Dees (Bass, acoustic and electric guitars, vocals, and percussion), Greg Gumpel (Lead guitar, mandolin, and banjo), and Brian Kelly on drums, they not only extend the line up to include a couple of saxophones and extra percussion on a couple of tracks, they haul in a whole bunch of special guests to fill out the sound on individual tracks with everything from trombones to cellos.
One of the great things musically about these guys is how they are able to sound loose in their playing while being really tight. It feels like at any minute the music could disintegrate into a mishmash of sound, but the reality is everything is played for a reason and every note is in the exact right place all the way through. Dees, who used to play extensively with Pat Travers, appears to be the musical director of the band as he's either written or had a hand in the writing of the fourteen original tunes on the disc. It's also his responsibility, along with drummer Gumpel as the bass player on most tracks, to hold the band together no matter what song they are playing. His bass is not only the heart beating at the centre of each track, its also the pulse the band adheres to that ensures they stay on track and never lose sight of what they're playing.
If Dees is the glue holding the band together, Victor Wainwright is the ball of energy that threatens to periodically send them off into orbit. As keyboardist and lead vocalist he's the voice of the band, and he loves to sink his teeth into anything he sings. He throws everything he's got into every song in terms of passion and enthusiasm. Now that doesn't mean he goes over the top, or sound like he's too much on a softer number, as he always manages to never cross the line into excess. He's also got one of those great rock and roll and voices that sound like its been soaked in whisky since birth and then hung out to dry in a smoke filled room every night. Rough as it is though he is surprisingly versatile and his range is much greater than you'd expect.
While it might sound like an odd thing to say, but the fact that I hardly noticed guitar player Gumpel's contribution is probably one of the best compliments I can give him. That means his guitar playing is exemplary as far as I'm concerned as he never once puts himself above the needs of the song or the band. It doesn't mean he never takes a solo, or that his solos aren't really good, but he makes sure that its never just about him, but about how he can serve the song with his leads. He also does some really wonderful banjo and mandolin work, something not all guitar players can handle. As for the fourth member of the band, drummer Brian Kelly, there's a real case of not noticing him because he's done his job so well. I mean lets be real, the only time most of us notice a drummer - unless he does one of those really boring drum solos I've learned to dread since the 1970's - is when they screw up. Kelly is back there on the drums for the whole disc keeping them steady and helping Dees hold it all together.
While The WildRoots are primarily a good time, boogie-woogie band who would sound right at home being the house band for a bordello - and I mean that as a compliment - they do have their surprises as well. The second song of the disc, "Planet Earth", is a beautiful gospel tinged number reminding us that we'd better take care of where we're living or we might just find ourselves homeless in the middle of the solar system. However, what really distinguishes these guys in my eyes from so much of what I've been listening to recently is they are having so much fun doing what they do that you can't help get caught up in it. For those of you who miss the days when rock and roll was about having a good time, or have never really known what's it like to simply enjoy music, this CD is a timely reminder of just how much fun there can be had listening to rock and roll.