Sacred cows make the tastiest burgers, says the Reverend Billy C. Wirtz, and he should know: The grill master has no equal in skewering and roasting the status quo, preaching the evils of greed, hypocrisy and TV evangelists from his boogie-woogie pulpit. Social satire seems a dying art in the United States, despite the wealth of opportunities that present themselves almost daily. But Wirtz has never shied away from the underbelly, gleefully blowing over our carefully constructed houses of cards and stripping the thin veneers of civilization that coat our daily lives. Not since Tom Lehrer has a keyboardist shown such a thorough grasp of the human condition. And you'll get nothing smirky or cute from the Rev, who goes for the jugular and sprays the crowd with his hilarious dissections.
Wirtz doesn't pick just easy or predictable targets (one of his lifelong foils, Senator Jesse Helms, notwithstanding). He'll often work local themes into his material, and though he may not know of the Hotel Six or our dubious summer Olympics bid, expect various Lone Star references to creep into the proceedings. The kinds of characters that populate his material will be familiar to those Harris County residents who have strayed outside the Loop; as Wirtz says, "My songs are based on the kind of folks you run into at the Waffle House outside of Lumberton, Georgia, at 3 a.m. in an ice storm."
A talented blues pianist whose skill on the ivories shines through at unexpected moments, Wirtz will often reverse gears mid-set with a sentimental favorite or boogie classic after riling the crowd to bomb-throwing intensity with his machine-gun oratory. The respite lasts but a few minutes, yet it's enough to remind the crowd that behind the acidic commentary and crazed persona is an exacting musician with an enormous technical and historical appreciation of the blues.
Many area fans know Wirtz through his fistful of fanciful recordings for the Hightone label, which have always found a home on KPFT's Spare Change and other radio anomalies. His latest, Best of the Wirtz: 15 Years on the Road with a 77-inch Pianist, combines previously unreleased versions of his personal faves and most-requested items with three new originals. ("What Would Elvis Do?" joins his list of instant classics.) But while his studio efforts and live tracks capture the flavor of his work, the four-course Billy C. experience cannot be duplicated at home via playback machines. For one, the visual is as integral a part of the Rev's show as the audio, and it's not just his fiery do, wrist-length tattoos and red velvet shoes. When Wirtz exhorts the crowd to raise its arms, wiggle its hands and shout "I can't cope!" the entire room responds with abandon, and the First House of Polyester Worship has another batch of converts.
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