Victor Wainwright’s Train Roars, Rollicks, and Barrels In ‘Memphis Loud’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

This is one loud but musically finessed rocking party and all are invited. As leader, keyboardist/singer/songwriter Victor Wainwright, says, “Everyone’s welcome aboard the train.” The “Train” is the name of conductor Wainwright’s core sextet, augmented by one as co-producer/guitarist Dave Gross becomes the caboose.  Meanwhile, 11 guests climb aboard as passengers for this live studio recording, Memphis Loud.  This amalgam of blues, R&B, funk, jazz and whatever else Wainwright throws into the mix has this train rollicking ahead full throttle. Wainwright, like this writer, has fun with the train references, saying this about the fans, “Our fans are like locomotive firemen, frantically shoveling coal into the furnace. They fuel us as we pull handles, twist knobs and screeches around the bend. With flying sparks and a wicked whistle, we’re arriving right on time with Memphis Loud.”

The 2019 Grammy-nominated Wainwright wrote or co-wrote all 12 songs and recorded with his group and guests in Memphis. Joining Wainwright (vocals, piano, Hammond B3, electric piano) in the studio are THE TRAIN: Billy Dean (drums, percussion, vocals), Terrence Grayson (bass, vocals), Pat Harrington (guitar, vocals), Mark Earley (baritone sax, tenor sax & clarinet), Doug Woolverton (trumpet & flugelhorn) and Dave Gross (guitar, vocals, percussion).  Special guests on Memphis Loud include former ‘Train’ Greg Gumpel (guitar/vocals), Mikey Junior (harmonica, vocals), Chris Stephenson (Hammond B3), Monster Mike Welch (guitar), and Reba Russell & Gracie Curran (vocals) are among seven background vocalists.

Wainwright is a highly decorated artist since he first burst on the scene in 2007. He has won multiple BMAs included Band of the Year and B.B. King Entertainer of the Year. As a pianist, he can boogie-woogie with the best, opening the first track, “Mississippi” that way and building an immense wall of sound that somehow just keeps getting bigger. It sets the tone for what’s to follow. “Walk The Walk” offers a catchy brass-driven hook from Woolverton and Early (who joined on the previous album as alumni from Roomful of Blues). The energy is palpable with vocal ad-libs and other sounds left in the live recording. “Sometimes we had upwards near ten musicians in the studio,” Wainwright says, extending the train motif, “We’re a big family, with many boxcars to this long train now. Everyone has built up emotional steam in their lives too, and as conductor, all I have to do is utilize that steam to power the Train forward.”

The piano-driven title track, tells the story of a benevolent musical train (‘coming to your town”) complete with rumbling percussion and rolling-down-the-tracks rhythm, like the vintage steam train pictured on the cover. “Sing” slows it down enough for lazy rhythm of New Orleans piano, muted trumpet, clarinet, and a haunting speakeasy or “after hours” vibe. “By the song’s end,” explains Wainwright, “the listener is surrounded by a hundred singing voices in emotional toil, but relieving that pain by singing, and letting it all out.”

Wainwright gets most of the accolades for his keyboard and bandleader talent, but he’s a deeply soulful vocalist too, best evidenced by his ballad, “Disappear”, a stunning song about sudden loss, as his voice drips with emotion, interrupted by the searing guitar solo, until returning for the heavy instrumental ending. Momentum picks up for “Creek Don’t Rise,” uplifting piano and story of a couple reigniting their spark while “getting away,” accented gleefully by several background vocalists. “Golden Rule” brings the funk with Wurlitzer and clavinet reminiscent of a Neville Brothers groove while “South End of a North Bound Mule” exemplifies Wainwright’s showmanship and sense of humor.

“America” is a pre-COVID-19 emotional tapestry of our country, with guitar master “Monster” Mike Welch stepping up for a burning solo amidst Wainwright’s piano and swirling B3. This another of Wainwright’s leave-it-all-on-the-floor vocals. “Recovery” is a solid roots song with Early ripping a sax solo and Welch doing the same with the axe.  “My Dog Riley”, is a fun, horn-infused ode to man’s best friend.  

Having attended a fairly recent live performance, it seemed inevitable that we’d find at least one epic tune on the disc and surely enough the closing slow-burn “Reconcile” fills the bill as it builds to a boil, simmers, and boils again several times as Wainwright and the band seems intent on wringing every last drop of soul from it. Pat Harrington’s guitar is on fire, matching Wainwright’s vocals. “Everyone’s invited and allowed on this train,” says Wainwright. “My Grandfather taught me that no brave man lies down on the tracks of history to wait for the train of the future to run over him. So I’m chuggin’ forward, making sure we give everyone the opportunity to travel, and as we traverse the beautiful winding path of all that roots music has to offer, we arrive fully at the same destination, happily, and all together!”

A year from now folks can hopefully gather in person for the Blues Music Awards and witness Wainwright and The Train laying claim to several of them. After all, this is Wainwright’s best yet.

 

 

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