Labor Day Blowout: The Nighthawks with Rev. Billy C. Wirtz
September 2, 2017 · Saturday * 8pm * $25 Seated / $20 Standing
When Mark Stutso, master of the deep groove, joined The Nighthawks at the beginning of 2010, the 21st-century version of the legendary American roots band was complete. With Paul Bell and Johnny Castle in the band for nearly a decade, and founding father Mark Wenner the remaining original, this team outshines all previous incarnations.
A Team of Veteran Players
The current members bring decades of varied experience to the stage and studio. Paul Bell has played in many influential bands around the Nation’s Capital and is the consummate D.C. guitarist, capable of soul scratching or country picking. Paul was less familiar with the classic Robert Lockwood/Louis Myers styles of Chicago blues playing than some of his predecessors, but it didn’t take long for him to add those to his bag of tricks. When he plays a slow blues solo, you can hear a little of late D.C. picker Roy Buchanan, but without the tortured hysterics. Paul spent 10 years working with legendary blue-eyed soul man and keyboardist Tommy Lepson, who subbed for Mark Wenner on a number of dates this year while Mark recovered from open-heart surgery.
Johnny Castle started his D.C. career with Crank, popular early hard-rockers who opened for Jimi Hendrix. He spent journeyman time with Eddie and Martha Adcock in the heyday of D.C. Bluegrass, mixing comfortably with legends such as Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley at festivals. After a stint with funk in an outfit called Spatz, he came through Tex Rabinowitz’s Bad Boys at the height of the Rockabilly revival, splitting off to form the psycho-billy band Switchblade. In 1984, Mark Wenner developed a repertoire of material with Switchblade and together they recorded Mark’s Fugitive – a project that mixed hard rocking country classics with electric blues instrumentation (think Kentucky Headhunters). Live versions of some of those tunes can be heard on Mark’s compilation, Runs Good, Needs Paint. Before joining the Nighthawks, Johnny spent a decade recording and touring with diesel-billy legend Bill Kirchen.
Mark Stutso spent nearly two decades with former Nighthawk Jimmy Thackery. Before that he played in a number of big and small-time rock bands, including Ruffryder – a spin-off of Black Oak Arkansas – and Virginia Beach-based Trix. Originally from deep in West Virginia and Southwest Virginia, Mark put in five years in the coal mines before escaping into his drum kit. He lives in Pittsburgh and has collaborated with the late Glenn Pavone and Norman Nardini. His vocals are a force to be reckoned with.
Blues Music Award
In 2009, Sirius XM’s Bill Wax, having heard that The Nighthawks were playing some acoustic shows, invited the band to record some live tracks for his “B.B. King’s Bluesville” channel. In less than two hours, the band cut almost a dozen tunes. A week later, Bill handed them a mixed version with permission to release. After Bill Wolf’s magic-touch in the mastering, Last Train to Bluesville was released on RipBang Records. With the able assistance of publicist Mark Pucci and radio promoter Todd Glazer, the CD won Acoustic Album of the Year at the Blues Foundation’s Blues Music Awards in Memphis in May 2011.
The Nighthawks “444”
444 draws from the deep roots the band has always mined: an organic mix of originals and classic cover tunes. Some are well known, like Muddy Waters’ “Louisiana Blues,” and some more obscure, like the Du Droppers’ “Walk That Walk.” But they all blend to make a rich American stew. “Honky Tonk Queen,” a Wenner original that sounds as if it could have come from an old Rolling Stones’ session outtake; “No Secrets,” (another Wenner song) and “Price of Love” (written by The Everly Brothers) are previously recorded Nighthawks songs presented here with new depth and breadth. “The King” is well-represented on the new disc, as well. Two early Elvis Presley movie numbers — “Got a Lot of Livin’” the final song in his 1957 film, Lovin’ You (which Elvis sings out in the audience that includes his mother Gladys) and “Crawfish,” which opens his 1958 movie, King Creole — date from the magic period in the 1950s when Mark Wenner was most under the spell of the radical new star.
THE NIGHTHAWKS, Legends of blues & roots rock current lineup for The Nighthawks is:
Mark Wenner: Vocals, Harmonica
Johnny Castle: Vocals, Bass
Paul Bell: Guitar
Mark Stutso: Drums, Vocals
Master of the 88 Key Disaster!
Reverend Billy C. Wirtz is a comic genius, gifted pianist and American musicologist who defies easy classification. “I like to think of myself as the Victor Borge of the blues,” states the Reverend, but Billy goes way beyond Borge both in scope of subject matter (from politics to social commentary) and, of course, in taste. In fact, no theme is too extreme, taboo, or undignified for the Reverend, so long as it garners a good laugh.
Billy C. Wirtz was born in Aiken, SC, on September 28, 1954. One of his most treasured childhood memories was watching the gospel programs broadcasted from the Bell Auditorium in nearby Augusta, GA. In 1963, his family moved to Washington, D.C. where he eventually landed a job at Glen’s Music, a record store which catered to black music, including R&B, jazz, and spirituals. “I spent all day long listening to Julius Cheeks, Clarence Fountain, and the Dixie Hummingbirds. I was in heaven,” said Billy. In 1971, he attended a gospel concert featuring, among others, the 615 pound Gloria Spencer, billed as “The World’s Largest Gospel Singer” and the Mighty Clouds of Joy. “It was like an epiphany for me, a revelation to experience something like that live. It left an indelible impression on me,” added Billy. While working at Glen’s he was also inspired by recordings of pianists Albert Ammons, Meade Lux Lewis, Big Maceo, and Otis Spann to name a few. He took up the keyboard while in high school, but it wasn’t until the tail end of his college career at James Madison University (from which he graduated with a degree in special education) did he play the instrument in earnest.
After graduation, as Wirtz was filling out applications to start a career in teaching, Chicago blues pianist Sunnyland Slim came through Virginia on tour. After attending a performance, Wirtz introduced himself and discovered Slim was headed to the next gig via Greyhound Bus. Billy volunteered to chauffer the blues legend to the next show and struck up a lasting friendship. Later, Sunnyland wrote thanking Billy and invited him to stay at his home if he ever made it to Chicago – an invitation that found Billy heading to the Windy City to accept. He stayed with Sunnyland Slim, learning directly from the master, going to Chicago niteclubs and meeting blues artists he revered as a youngster. This taste of the musicians’ lifestyle ignited the idea that he himself might make a living playing the piano. His first official blues band was Sidewinder, a group from his college town of Harrisonburg, VA, and later was able to hook up with the Charlottesville All Stars, a larger ensemble with similar blues tastes.
As the 80’s dawned, Billy Wirtz had already earned the reputation of being a gifted sideman and became much sought after by many Washington, D.C area roots bands, including the legendary Root Boy Slim & the Sex Change Band, Evan Johns and the H-Bombs, and the original contingent of the Nighthawks, which included Jimmy Thackery on guitar. By 1982, Billy had grown weary of the incertitude of freelancing and decided to embark on a solo career. About the same time Billy declared his independence his first solo LP was recorded live in a bar in Hickory, N.C., Salvation Through Polyester, on the No Big Deal label of Atlanta. In 1988, Wirtz released Deep Fried and Sanctified on the Kingsnake label – a turning point for him in many ways. “I think we originally pressed about 2000 copies of this before leasing it to Hightone in 1989 and it marked my long and productive association with that great label,” said Billy.
He would remain with Hightone for the next dozen years, releasing six more undertakings: Backslider’s Tractor Pull, Turn for the Wirtz: Confessions of a Hillbilly Love-God, Pianist Envy, Songs of Faith and Inflammation, Unchained Maladies, Rib Ticklin’ plus a compilation, The Best of the Wirtz:15 Years on the Road with a 77″ Pianist.
“Wrestling is Real. It’s The Rest of it That’s Fake”
Pete Backof of Baltimore’s City Paper recently pointed out that professional wrestling is one of America’s indigenous art forms and even goes on to quote French literary critic, Roland Barthe’s commentary on the phenomenon – “the great spectacle of suffering, defeat, and justice.” In keeping with his assumed stage identity, Reverend Billy could not help but be attracted to this sport, a modern morality play of good versus evil. “I have to admit I was fascinated to the point of talking my way into the industry. In 1989 I even became a manager for about six months for Diamond Dallas Page. I loved inciting the crowds,” he said. After leaving management, he returned to the ring as the house band for TBS’s (Turner Broadcasting) Monday Night Wrestling, a three-month stint which accorded him some publicity, especially after a clip of a performance was shown on the Jay Leno Show. “Granted, for a spell, it was a gas. But then it got to be a grind. And besides that, the pay was lousy,” said Billy.
Billy soon would have yet another iron in the fire – writing. “I guess it all began about 1993 when I was living in Nashville and documented the passing of Thomas A. Dorsey,” he said. A blues scholar of the first order, Billy pointed out that Dorsey in his youth had written some racy blues songs like “It’s Tight Like That,” but after he embraced religion, was also able to pen some of the greatest gospel hymns ever, including the oft-recorded “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” and “Peace in the Valley.”
At the time, Billy never thought that the isolated obituary was going to lead anywhere professionally, but a chance encounter that same year with Bob Doerschuk, then editor of Keyboard magazine, would soon cause him to reconsider. Since Billy was constantly blazing new trails, crisscrossing the United States, Bob suggested that he contribute a regular column entitled “Road Stories,” which, from Billy’s description, seemed to be along the same lines as the late Charles Kuralt’s television series devoted to local human interest tales. When Doerschuck left Keyboard in 1995 to become senior editor of Musician magazine, he invited Billy to reprise his former role with regular installments to the “Backside” section.
Billy continues in this pursuit, freelancing and making contributions to Allmusic.com, Blueswax.com and the Charlotte Observer. If this flurry of activity isn’t enough to keep him occupied, he has also proffered a book-length manuscript Don’t Eat At Joe’s to a publisher.
Sit On My Faith. The True Story of a Honky Tonk Angel Touched by Reverend Billy
Goateed and copiously tattooed, he is the antithesis of anyone’s ordinary concept of a preacher. Yet, as his name implies, Billy often employs this stage persona to set the scene in a song. Like an itinerant revivalist in a carnival tent, he’ll begin slowly and gradually build to a rapid fire torrent, as if he were whipping the congregation into a frenzy. Accentuating the lyrics with wild hand gesticulations and exaggerated facial expressions, he becomes a comedian, twisted televangelist and barrel house piano player rolled into one. Just when the crowd senses that he’s about to explode in some massive spasm, he’ll compose himself and segue into a slow blues number while asking the assembled multitude to forgive him for being “overcome by the spirit.” Naturally, his fans, the “faithful,” are accustomed to this denouement and even shout “Amen” but not before egging him on to even more histrionics before that ultimate crescendo is reached. “Testify, Billy, testify,” they cry, and the Reverend Billy, gathering strength from their exhortations like a hurricane from warm waters, is always willing to accommodate them.
When Blind Pig Records approached The Reverend with the idea of filming a DVD as well as recording a live CD he was both intrigued and excited by the possibilities. The result, Sermon From Bethlehem, documents Billy at his schizophrenic best, careening nonstop through a selection of old comic favorites (“Roberta,” “Granny’s At The Wheel”, “Mennonite Surf Party”, “Grandma Versus The Crusher”) and soon-to be-classics (“Female Problems”, “Do The Toleration”, “The King and I”) as well as knocking out some of the smokinest blues and boogie woogie piano this side of Sunnyland Slim.
* portions of this biography are borrowed from Larry Benicewicz’ article “But Seriously Folks,” published in the BluesArt-Journal