It's obviously best to look at these discs on their own individual merits. I'll start with a little of my own background knowledge in regards to Still Smokin'! First, having had the chance to share conversation with Victor a few times, I know that he used to play in honky tonks and bars with Jesse and Vic Sr., so the "family roots" referred to in the title are honest and run deep. I knew this recording was coming, and I knew that Wainwright was really excited about being able to do this. I honestly don't think it was just a tribute thing, though the love and respect he has for his family is very obvious here - I think it was a matter of three men who have enjoyed playing music together for a long, long time having a chance to share their joy with as much of the world as wants to join. From that (and many other) viewpoints, the disc is a rousing success.
One of the important things to know about Wainwright is that there's the subtle element of a teacher in everything he does musically; he loves working with talented, young, unknown musicians to help keep the blues alive, and even when he performs live, there's a lot of nods to the history of his music. That teacher's instinct is one of the things I find most intriguing about Still Smokin'! This isn't really blues like you've come to expect from Wainwright; it is very much his own roots and sways back and forth between good ol' bar boogie ala Jerry Lee and slower, more traditionally country flavored ballads. I have no doubt this was the sort of stuff that was incredibly popular in backroad honky tonks back in the day, and the disc makes me wish I could have seen a performance of it back then. The teaching element works its way into the fabric of the recording when it becomes obvious on a couple of listens that the soulful gut-wrenching blues that Wainwright is currently perfecting is really not all that many steps away from the honkin' and country sounds found here. Right off the bat, I have to say that ANY fans out there of the classic era of Ray Price will no doubt love how Jesse handles the vocal chores on the ballad portions of the disc. They even cover Price's best known classic, "For The Good Times," and they nail it. For the record, Price is currently in his 80s and still keeps an active touring schedule, and I sincerely hope that somehow, he gets to hear this!
"Lonesome 77203," "Trouble In Mind" and "Help Me Make It Through The Night" are among the other classic ballad performances presented here; of those, I'm particularly fond of "Help Me" for the superb vocal duet between Jesse and longtime Memphis icon Reba Russell; the styles and personalities of two very fine singers mesh perfectly on this track, and I can't help but think it was probably among the fun highlights of the sessions. Ballad wise, my favorite track here is "Nightlife." This is the best example here of just how close real country blues and real black blues actually are, and the band bridges that gap seamlessly. Of particular note are the quick piano highlight (both Victor and Jesse are credited with piano on the disc; I don't know for sure, but it sounds more like Victor to me) and the beautiful moaning guitar work throughout the track by Josh Roberts. Again... to students of music everywhere looking for tracks that show the strong relationships between what might seem to be very different genres on the surface, I can't encourage you enough to study and enjoy this piece.
The uptempo boogie numbers on the disc are certainly easier to identify with Victor, since he is such an accomplished boogie woogie player. Here, we're treated to "Got Me Runnin'," "Rockin' My Life Away" and "Sweet Little Sixteen." "Sixteen" is a real delight - great arrangement, Jesse's vocal is spot on, Victor's piano (again, I'm assuming it's Victor here!) is as wonderful as you expect, and the guitar lead is short, sweet and just what is called for (Vic Sr.?). Keyboard wise, perhaps the real nuggets on the disc are three snippets entitled "Four Handed Boogie." Man oh man oh man... Victor comes by it honestly! These are piano duets featuring him and his grandfather and they're nothing but pure fun. Not only that, but it gives a lot of hope for fans of Victor that we'll have the chance to enjoy him for a long time - Granddad can not only sing, but he still has the chops!
Moving to Extended Stay finds Wainwright and company in territory more familiar to his fans. Here, we have eight well-chosen covers, tunes the band simply enjoys hearing and enjoys playing... and by "extended stay," the band means these eight tunes come in at right about an hour! It's a "live in the studio" recording; that sometimes scares me, to be honest, because I've heard too many live studio recordings that were obviously overdubbed, but I'd be pretty willing to bet that this is a legit live recording, no tricks. It's easy to characterize the feel of this disc... it's fun, it's vibrant, it's a bunch of great musicians really groovin' on and with one another, it's occasionally a touch sloppy (which, to me, just adds to the fun) and it's as good a starting point for a new Wainwright fan as there might be.
Three tracks in particular absolutely delight me. "Minnie The Moocher" is a perfect choice for this stage of Wainwright's career - the character he is and is developing on stage is truly reminiscent of the galloping fun that was Cab Calloway in his prime, and the band just nails the joyful attitude of the song. As an added bonus, though it's not listed, this is actually a medley, as about halfway through, the band slides into "St. James' Infirmary." It's such a natural transition that it will be difficult to hear "Moocher" without hearing "Infirmary" going forward. Another favorite is "Bo Diddley;" the fact that everybody has covered this at some point in their lives makes it, to me, crucial listening - that's why great musicians play standards, to show what they can offer, and what these guys offer is again loose, raucous fun... and another oh-so-natural transition, as the song segues effortlessly between "Bo" and "Who Do You Love" for the entirety of its nine minutes. See, THIS is what makes these guys so much fun to see on a stage!
The absolute cruncher of the whole package comes from the brilliant cover of the Tom Waits chestnut "Get Behind The Mule." This is, of course, a natural; again, the persona that Wainwright has been developing is a perfect vehicle for Tom Waits, both musically and conceptually. It's not at all surprising that Wainwright is a huge Waits fan (who isn't?), and believe me, he does everybody proud here. Can you out-slink and out-sleaze Tom Waits? Maybe not entirely... but here, Wainwright at the VERY least equals Waits' best efforts, no mean feat. More than anywhere else on the disc, Wainwright's vocal work here clearly defines where he is at this point in time, and the prospects for the future seem virtually unlimited when I hear a performance of this calibre. Again, we get a real treat here - the second half of the song is another seamless segue, this time into a seriously Howlin' Wolf-ish rendition of "Wang Dang Doodle." This is nothing shy of brilliant, and even for all the shining moments between these two discs, this track alone is worth the price of admission. I mean, dayam... Tom Waits AND Howlin' Wolf in one track?!?!?
I feel your best bet with Family Roots is to approach it not as a new Victor Wainwright album (there's no new material, etc.) but more accurately as an intimate and personal peek into some of the music and values that Wainwright cherishes. For me, an album like this is a gift; it provides so much insight as to what it was that bit Victor in the first place and obviously never went away. I truly enjoyed this glimpse of where he's been and where he is... and I hope it's obvious that I can't WAIT to see where he's going to go as time marches on!