While live performances are what really bring the music to the people (perhaps especially in the case of blues), recording albums is where the legacy starts and where the foundation of a live show begins. In keeping with his love for the music in a variety of blues genres, Wainwright has alternately toured with The Victor Wainwright Band, The WildRoots and Southern Hospitality, a blues “supergroup” that also includes J.P. Soars and Damon Fowler. He recently went into Ardent Studios is Memphis, TN (Wainwright’s home-base city) to begin recording a new project, “Victor Wainwright and the Train.” Much to my pleasure and excitement, he invited me to join him in the studio for one of the last days recording the initial tracks for the album, tentatively due in late summer or early autumn of this year. As you can well imagine, I jumped at the chance to be among the first to get a taste of his newest music.
I’ve been a fan of Wainwright’s music for a long time - he was one of the first artists I more or less attached myself to when I moved to Memphis some nine years ago. Between those earlier days in his career when he played Beale Street as often as weekly to now where his concert tours are of international scope, I’m guessing I’ve seen him in concert a good thirty times, maybe more (and please believe me when I say I’ll continue to go to great effort to make any show I can - he’s just that good). A studio session, though, is a whole ‘nother animal; what you lose in the spontaneity and energy of a live crowd, you gain from the chance to lay something down and do it again if you feel like you have something a little better within. It’s a fascinating process to see… and, of course, to a fan, being able to watch the magic being created is a special experience. This is the first project recorded under “The Train” moniker; when I asked Wainwright why he chose to go with this instead of the WildRoots (a band he’s recorded and toured with for years), he replied, “It’s something a little different… plus, this is the first time I’ve entirely self-produced an album, and it just seemed appropriate to give it an identity of it’s own.” Fair enough. That new identity comes in the form of Wainwright on keyboards and lead vocals, Pat Harrington on guitar, Terrence Grayson on bass and Billy Dean on drums; the whole band chips in on background vocals. Grayson and Harrington are the newest elements of his touring troupe, Dean is a man he’s worked with for quite some time. The sessions at Ardent were overseen by Dave Gross as Lead Engineer, who was assisted by Mike Wilson.
Another factor that plays into getting good work done is simply knowing how to work with your own people. Again, you’re in the studio and the money clock is ticking; it’s a very fine balance that has to be woven between being a taskmaster while keeping the mood conducive to creation. That didn’t seem to be a problem. For a start, Wainwright has a superb combination of experience and good old fashioned kindness and people skills that serve him well in the situation. There are no covers on the album (rare for a blues recording), and with assuming the production as well as composing chores, he obviously came in with a very good idea of what he wanted and seemed very able to get it. Victor is an amazingly kind and caring man; if you’re a friend, you get greeted with a bear hug and a smile that’s becoming as trademark as, say, the one Jerry Garcia was known for, and it’s all honest. He’s able to use that to get the very best out of his band, knowing when to take a break, to lighten the mood, and when/how to get back to work. The rapport between he, his band and his technical people was obvious (and unsurprising to anybody who knows him). I have to say I was almost as impressed with the efficiency displayed in the studio as I was with the talent.
The second track I heard was a tribute to B.B. King, probably Wainwright’s personal favorite overall bluesman (he has a pet named Riley); he took a very interesting path in his tribute, choosing to sing his praises to Lucille, B.B.’s longtime legendary companion, his guitar. Entitled “Thank You Lucille,” it’s a slow-to-midtempo number that boils over with admiration for the music that inspired so many. My initial instinct tells me that both because of the subject matter and the sheer intensity of the performance, it may well be one of the tracks singled out for extensive radio play, and I have zero doubt it will remain a concert favorite for many years to come. Wainwright was experimenting with a piano overdub on the part; he had told me he specifically chose Ardent for the basic tracks because he wanted to explore the sonic qualities of the room (obviously super important to a good recording), and if there’s a piano present, Victor is going to bleed every ounce of sound he can get from it. Again not surprisingly, what he played was amazing; that’s no guarantee that it will wind up on the finished album, but it’s a fine indicator that if he feels he can top the performance I heard, I simply can’t wait.
The third track I heard (the one the band chose to leave as is for now) is a powerful piece Wainwright has been performing for years, entitled “Righteous.” I’m personally thrilled that this is finally making it’s way to an album; I’ve heard the piece performed quite a few times and I’ve indicated more than once that it’s among my favorites of all of his work. “Explosive” hardly explains how strong the song is; a rollicking piano foundation is augmented by a thunderous rhythm section and demands an impassioned lead guitar; the musicians came through in kind. Here more than on any of the other work I heard, The Train is an incredibly proper designation. I’ve strongly recommended to Victor for a long time that he record the piece and use it as a gateway to college and alternative radio; we’ll see what happens.
I couldn’t be more thrilled… and I’ll go on record right now as saying I plan to someday pirate the phrase “careful abandonment” for my own purposes. As excited as I always am for a new Victor Wainwright recording, this one will be even more special to me. I already know the material is good and well-performed, and of course I’ll be excited to see how what I heard gets massaged into the final release. Wainwright is a musician of vision and commitment and honor… and yeah, above all, he is a bluesman.
My sincere thanks to Lisa Mac, the official photographer for these sessions, for allowing me to use a couple of her photographs for this article. She's a very talented and very sweet lady; you can see more of her work here. The uncredited photos used were my own. It's always worth checking Victor's website for tour dates, significant announcements and samples of his work.