Sunnyland Slim, Pinetop Perkins, and the Reverend Billy C. Wirtz all jockey for space under Victor Wainwright’s skin, threatening to burst out and scamper up and down the keyboard at any given moment. Barely keeping them in check, Wainwright shovels out fistfuls of raucous boogie-woogie piano at a frenetic pace, pounding the keys like a man possessed. His debut for Ruf, 2018’s Victor Wainwright and the Train, won him a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Blues Album and a No. 1 slot on the Billboard blues chart. His latest, Memphis Loud, comes with a new horn section, and is as hard-charging as his previous work.
Although he’s slimmed down physically, Wainwright’s sound is as large as ever. Rattling the keys and howling righteously like Jerry Lee Lewis on “Walk the Walk,” the pianist rolls and rattles like The Killer, backed by boiling Memphis guitar courtesy of Pat Harrington. Wainwright had plenty of punch before with his backing band, but the added horns give it another dimension.
The title cut, “Memphis Loud,” leans hard on the train metaphor, a chuggin’ locomotive burning down the track to Memphis with Wainwright as engineer smokin’ the wheels as he barrels along with the horn section burning brass by the ton.
Wainwright is a bit more down-homey here than usual, sounding like Dr. John fronting Oliver Wood’s old band King Johnson on “South End of a North Bound Mule,” a funky, trippy rural trip over some muddy roots.
“My Dog Riley” invents a new genre, barrelhouse country, superimposing Wainwright’s piano- pounding rambunctiousness onto a good ol’ boy framework built around a man’s adoration for his good ol’ dawg.
There’s always been plenty of soul in Memphis. Dusty and Toots tapped into it for past triumphs as well as the usual suspects: Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, and Al Green and the cast and crew of Stax and Hi Records. Wainwright pays homage to the sound of the town with “Reconcile,” an eight-minute ode to the Memphis sound that that rolls up the spirits of those soulmen and women and marches them down the aisle for a churchy soul procession sanctified by a stirring Duane Allman-esque sacred steel solo by guest guitarist Greg Gumpel.
As his body shrinks, his soul intensifies, making Wainwright a candidate for a whole new musical category, a boogie-woogie soulman with a down-home country heart.