Barrelhouse blues master Victor Wainwright performs during last night’s sold-out show at 9 Wallis in Beverly.
For Victor Wainwright, the flight path has been more akin to a rocket launch. While he comes from a musical family and learned piano at the feet of both his father and grandfather, the Savannah, Ga., native spent his first three years in his adopted home of Memphis working as an air traffic controller.
After jamming on Beale Street with artists from Memphis’ rich blues community, he was convinced to leave the radar screens behind and chart a musical course. The results have been nothing short of spectacular.
Wainwright is a three-time winner of the The Blues Foundation’s Pinetop Perkins Piano Player of the Year award, and in 2016 was named BB King Entertainer of the Year — the same year his then-named ensemble Wildroots was Band of the Year. As Wainwright proved last night in a sold-out show in the intimate space of 9 Wallis in Beverly, he is worthy of Entertainer of the Year honors this year and any year.
A world-class boogie-woogie pianist and possessor of one of the great voices in blues today, Wainwright and his re-dubbed band The Train last night performed many songs off their 2019 Grammy nominated album of the same name. What’s miraculous about all the deserved attention is that it has not affected the humble and lovable Wainwright in the least. Well, in a way it has changed him. … Wainwright has shed a considerable amount of weight over the past two years, essentially ignoring the credo put forth by his song, “I’ll Start Tomorrow,” which addresses a tendency to put off a healthier lifestyle in the name of having “fun.”
Last night, he and The Train started off with that song but not before Wainwright offered the disclaimer: “You might notice I’ve dropped a lot of weight,” he said, then gesturing to the other core players in his band. “Between the four of us, we’ve lost almost 200 pounds!”
That garnered great applause but not as much as the music that followed. Wainwright is backed by superb players, including drummer Billy Dean and bassist Terrence Grayson, both of whom have been with him since the Wildroots days, and the youngest member of the band, prodigious guitarist Pat Harrington. Last night they were joined by frequent collaborator Mark Earley on baritone sax, and a talented newcomer, Jon Persson, on trumpet. Then there was another major Wainwright collaborator in special guest and decidedly transcendent guitarist “Monster” Mike Welch.
When Welch took the stage he reprised his studio role on the song “Thank You, Lucille” — Wainwright’s ode to BB King and his guitar. Wainwright took special pride in winning the first BB King Entertainer of the Year trophy awarded following the legend’s passing in 2015, and his love for King and the Blues and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer’s iconic axe is clear (Wainwright sings, “I am overwhelmed with love and inspiration/Thank you for giving my mentor’s hands a place to call home.”) Welch lent an unmistakable BB King tone to his solo on the song, causing the crowd to whoop wildly. In what seemed to be a strong case of mutual admiration, Welch and Harrington traded hot licks the rest of the way.
The most moving and emotional moment of the night came a short time later when Wainwright dedicated “Same Old Blues,” a number originally written for one of his mentors to the memory of Welch’s playing partner, Mike Ledbetter, who died unexpectedly in January.
The emotion gripped Welch’s face on that one, and it was pouring from his guitar, too. It is a powerfully summoning song that always draws a demonstrably anguished Wainwright away from the piano to the edge of the stage for its vocal crescendo, bringing listeners to the edge of their seats. I have seen Wainwright perform this song dozens of times over the years, and never has it been wringing with as much fresh emotion as it was last night — Welch and Wainwright sharing a gut-wrenching moment of mourning in a musical embrace.
After more than two hours of songs, two encores and three standing ovations, the crowd was still imploring for more. Wainwright has sold out shows at 9 Wallis before, but his ascendency — and undoubtedly word-of-mouth raves — drew many newcomers, as evidenced by the show of hands when Wainwright asked who in the crowd was seeing him for the first time. Judging from the wide smiles and stunned looks on their faces, it will not be the last time they look to catch a glimpse of this musical meteor.