Sunday, June 10, 2018

CD Review: Webb Wilder and the Beatneck's Powerful Stuff! (2018)

Webb Wilder and the Beatneck's Powerful Stuff!
Back in the mid-1980s, Webb Wilder (née John McMurry) burst onto the Nashville rock scene like a revelation. Sure, we local fans enjoyed bands like Afrikan Dreamland, the White Animals, and Jason & the Nashville Scorchers which pursued their own individual muse, but the musical immigrant from Hattiesburg, Mississippi brought with him a love of British Invasion rock, 1950s-era rockabilly and blues, and classic 1960s-era country music. Wilder created a unique musical hybrid that helped define the “Americana” genre that would follow a decade later representing, as he did, the influence and resulting confluence of nearly every native musical style.

Launching his lengthy career with 1986’s It Came From Nashville, Wilder and his talented, often underrated bands – primarily the Beatnecks and the NashVegans – toured relentlessly and delivered five groundbreaking albums over the following ten years, including a pair of bona fide classics in 1991’s Doo Dad and 1996’s Acres of Suede. Sadly, Wilder was a man both ahead of and behind the times, and after failing to achieve much more than a cult following during the time of grunge and hair metal, he virtually disappeared for nearly a decade, popping back up as a DJ for Sirius XM radio’s “Outlaw Country” channel – an appropriate forum for a quick-witted, humorous, and glib talker like Webb (whom I’ve known and interviewed many times since his arrival in the Music City).

When Wilder reappeared with 2005’s About Time album, he showed that he still had plenty of gas in the tank, and he’s since almost doubled the number of titles in his catalog. Powerful Stuff! could be seen as a “stopgap” measure between studio albums, but it’s really a look back at the artist’s past, a carefully-curated collection of previously-unreleased studio outtakes and live performances that should thrill any longtime WW fan. Scatted among these sixteen exhilarating tracks are a handful of original songs that beg the question of their obscurity along with a number of electrifying cover tunes that not only prove Wilder’s skill as an interpreter of classic rock, blues, and R&B material but also serves to properly earn the singer revered status as a “songster” like so many Mississippi artists of yore.

Webb Wilder’s Powerful Stuff!

Slapping a Webb Wilder album on whatever twin-speaker rig you might own is like finding the “Trademark of Quality” stamp – you’re guaranteed a good time every time! Even a hodge-podge collection like Powerful Stuff! has more than enough cheap thrills to get you through your hectic day. The disc kicks off with the rollicking “Make That Move,” a vintage ‘90s locomotive rocker originally done by Levi & the Rockats, an early ‘80s rockabilly outfit that obviously made an impression on a young WW. The song receives the full treatment from the “Last of the Full Grown Men” here, complete with mile-a-minute rhythms, studio-distorted vocals, and wiry guitarplay. The 1960s-styled, pop-leaning “New Day” is a psych-drenched Wilder original recorded in ’93 but lost in the studio until now. The trippy, swirling fretwork of guitarist Donny “The Twangler” Roberts perfectly complements Wilder’s melodic vocals while the rest of the band creates a miasmic din of clashing instrumentation.

The blustery “Lost In the Shuffle” is one of longtime Wilder friend, producer, and compatriot R.S. “Bobby” Field’s many songs recorded by the singer. Why this one was never released I can’t figure out, even with an abacus and a slide-rule…the song’s bluesy undercurrents support a surprisingly deft R&B delivery, with the legendary Al Kooper adding his inspired keyboards, the talented Jim Hoke blowing his sax, and Field providing some tasty six-string flourishes. The song stands up with anything that Webb has recorded over his lengthy career, and that’s saying something. Field’s “Animal Lover,” a 1988 studio track that takes Wilder out of his comfort zone, veers dangerously close to ‘80s-era new wave pop territory with a bouncy melody and an unusual chorus, Webb straining his vocals to match the song’s wordy albeit erudite story-telling lyrics. The dueling guitars of Wilder and Roberts anchor the song firmly on rock ‘n’ roll planet earth.

Nutbush City Limits

As much fun as the long-lost studio tracks may be, Powerful Stuff! offers plenty of crackerjack live performances by the talented Beatnecks. The album’s title track was captured at Mountain Stage show in 1988; Webb and the Beatnecks wisely shelved the track after the Fabulous Thunderbirds picked it up and scored a hit, even naming their 1989 album for the song. Featured in the mondo-successful Tom Cruise movie Cocktail, “Powerful Stuff” was the first single released from a soundtrack album that sold better than ten million flapjacks around the globe. Webb’s reading of the song is less bluesy, but offers up shards of stinging, vibrant guitar and Wilder’s awestruck vocals. It takes cajones to cover Ike & Tina Turner, but Wilder does just that with a raucous live take of the classic “Nutbush City Limits,” delivering the panache that Bob Seger promised (but failed) by hewing closer to the original with a ramshackle arrangement, shotgun vocals, and a recklessly-rocking soundtrack delivered with punkish intensity.

Wilder covers fellow underrated Nashville rocker Steve Forbert’s “Catbird Seat,” a twangy lyrics-heavy tale that mixes a rockabilly rhythm and a classic country heart with fretwork as sharp as concertina wire and Wilder’s machinegun vocal delivery. The Cajun country of Doug Kershaw’s “Hey Mae” is close to Wilder’s heart, and with this performance – captured live at the world-famous Exit/In club in Nashville – Webb displays another facet of his talents. With backing vocal harmonies from the band that offers a sort of “call and response,” Wilder leads his troops through a rowdy performance that is equal parts Bo Diddley and Charlie Feathers. Ditto for his cover of Johnny Paycheck’s “Revenooer Man,” which is provided an inspired Webb performance complete with lively chicken-pickin’ and a choogling rhythm; by comparison, the Field song “Dead and Starting to Cool” is a somber tale of romantic heartbreak with Webb’s deep baritone vocals, menacing guitar riffs, and ominous rhythms. Powerful Stuff! closes out with Little Richard’s classic “Lucille,” Wilder and the Beatnecks finding a deep rhythmic groove for Webb’s free-flowing vocals to ride atop, the band rocking with joyous abandon.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

As I alluded to above, if you don’t have a good time playing a Webb Wilder album, then you’ve probably assumed room temperature. Sure, Powerful Stuff! is an “odds ‘n’ sods” collection culled from Wilder’s archives, but the material is delivered with every bit the same level of energy and commitment as anything that Webb has previously put on record. For those of us who became fans with Wilder’s It Came From Nashville LP, Powerful Stuff! is yet another welcome addition to the (slowly-growing) Webb Wilder canon. As the man says, “work hard, rock hard, eat hard, sleep hard, grow big, wear glasses if you need ‘em.” Amen… Grade: A (Landslide Records, released April 27, 2018)

Previously on That Devil Music:
Webb Wilder’s Mississippi Mōderne CD review
Webb Wilder’s It Came From Nashville CD review

Buy the CD from Webb Wilder’s Powerful Stuff!

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