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Victor Wainwright & The WildRoots - Beale Street to the Bayou

WildRoots Records

14 songs; 56:31 minutes; Suggested

Genre: Roots Music

Styles: Blues, Rock and Roll, Jazz, R & B, Gospel, Bluegrass, Funky Soul

Some Blues fans contend that there are certain songs so classic as to be sacred and, therefore, should never be covered by a contemporary artist! You, yourself, have probably heard a pointless cover version of a reference quality song that leaves one wondering, “Why not just play the original”? An example is Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say.”

Victor Wainwright and producer Stephen Dees had to know they were walking on eggshells when they tackled Ray’s rave up number. Regardless of one’s opinion about sanctity, the fact is they pulled it off in grand style, as only a rare few could. While still honoring the song but without note for note copying, they made it their own behind Wainwright’s powerful vocals and crafty keyboards. “What’d I Say” was the first cut Shuffle Shoes and I played on WKCC’s Friends of the Blues Radio Show.

The stirring “Long Way To Go” will be the second cut I play. Guest Josh Roberts from the Reba Russell Band deftly fills and solos on sweet slide guitar. Opening with Brian Kelly on some ruckus drumming, Victor’s “piana” then sets the rhythm while he sings emotionally about reaching the promised-land, but, we still have a “Long way to go.” Even more serious is “Sold Down River” with only Roberts on Dobro guitar and Victor on harmonica and vocals about slavery.

My first Ear Worm (a song that sticks in your head) is the first track, the muscular "Mighty Man." Opening with innovative piano chords, the players all give examples of what’s to come in the CD. This includes Victor’s deep, powerhouse vocals as he explains his formidable attributes as a lover reminiscent of “Hootchie Cootchie Man’s” theme.

Both the band and piano driven, all-original-save-one-cover CD are a project of two main musical forces: Wainwright, a 28 year old Memphis Boogie Blues pianist and singer, and Florida’s Stephen Dees, an MTV-savvy pop-rocker. Wainwright left his native Savannah, GA for Florida to pursue a double major in college, instead earning what he calls a "double major in Boogie - a Ph.D. in Swing and a Master's in Rhythm." The "Piana’ from Savannah" then graduated to a house gig at Wet Willie's on Beale Street in Memphis.

Florida-bred musician Stephen Dees was seduced away from his family’s Country roots by Rock and Roll. By the 1980s he was touring and/or recording as bassist and vocalist for Hall and Oates, Todd Rundgren, Foghat, and Pat Travers. Dees also co-founded Novo Combo with former Santana drummer Michael Shrieve. Since the late 1990s, Dees has continued his pursuit of eclectic pop-rock with his band the Bandees, based in Edgewater, FL.

The two met six years ago at a benefit concert. Impressed after hearing each other perform, they found a common love for early Rhythm and Blues and Rock and Roll music. They discussed collaborating on an original recording project, paying homage to their Rock and Rhythm roots. Dees agreed to produce, perform on bass and second guitars, add vocals, and co-write.

For the project, Victor brought in guitarist Greg Gumpel, a friend and band mate since they had met in 2002, who additionally impressed Dees with mandolin and banjo. Stephen brought in drummer Brian Kelly whom he had met playing in a progressive rock band. Victor was likewise impressed with Kelly's versatility. The band clicked, and after some outstanding live performances, they knew they had something special: Victor Wainwright and the WildRoots. For the CD, they extended the line up in select songs to include a couple of saxophones and extra percussion, and special guests fill individual tracks with background vocals, trombone, trumpet, and cello.

As the title implies, they've successfully achieved their goal of using various inspirations for these songs and obviously had a hell of a good time along the way. Anything but disjointed, the set eases gracefully from one style to another. One may not like every song, but “Beale Street to the Bayou” has something for every taste. Worthwhile project? Check!

Reviewer James "Skyy Dobro" Walker is a noted Blues writer, DJ, Master of Ceremonies, and Blues Blast contributor. His weekly radio show "Friends of the Blues" can be heard Thursdays from 7 - 8 pm and Saturdays 8 pm - Midnight on WKCC 91.1 FM and at in Kankakee, IL

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