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Worship Run Amuck

The Reverend Billy C. Wirtz at the FAC



Picture a ramshackle roadhouse situated between a trailer park and a one-pump gas station on the outskirts of some brick-and-concrete factory town on a payday Friday night.

Inside, the tables and booths are crammed with bodies and beer bottles, the bar lined three-deep with scene aficionados psyched for a binge. The vibe is Harley Davidson, Old Grandad, screw-top wine, Earl Sheib's and XFL cheerleaders.

On stage is a six-foot-five, heavily tattooed, basso-voiced manic reeling off some wicked blues licks to a rowdy backbeat. He is visiting bedlam on the crowd by way of a stage presence that appears to be a run-amuck composite of Jimmy Swaggart, Jesse Ventura, Jerry Lee Lewis, John Belushi, Sonny Barger, Lenny Bruce, Hunter Thompson, Salvador Dali, Billy Graham, Lord Buckley, Frank Zappa, Anita Bryant and Ron Ronco (of Veg-O-Matic fame).

Envision this scenario in toto and you have the essence of an evening with the Reverend Billy C. Wirtz at his boogie-sanctified, pa-raise-Jayzazz!, where's-my-dinner-woman?, over-the-top live best.

If this scene is down your alley, make sure you check out the Reverend Billy's "First House of Polyester Worship and Horizontal Throbbing Teenage Desire Musical Ministry" on March 30 and 31 at the Fine Arts Center.

The Rev has taken his "warped, left-of-center, Southeastern, post-psychedelic, mayonnaise-hatin' worldview" on tour in promotion of his eighth album, Best of the Wirtz -- a tour de force compilation of his personal favorites and most-requested numbers (several of them live), along with a smattering of interview excerpts and primo verbal riffs. The fruit, in short, of a 20-year career grandly misspent in gin joints, biker bars, redneck honkytonks, seedy comedy clubs, pro-wrestling auditoriums and cut-rate motels.

When the Rev "gets down," he can deliver some genuinely wicked and virtuosic blues licks that can whip a crowd into table-pounding yee-haw frenzies.

The best parts of his performances, though, are verbal. What sets him apart is an amazing gift for improvisational repartee steeped in late-night TV infomercials, pentacostal televangelism, Elvis Preslyisms, rasslin' rants and redneck culture.

A highly articulate raconteur with a razor-sharp ear for language, Wirtz is the rival of (though very different in tone and schtick from) Tom Waits, another barroom poet and story-telling genius.

It took several days of phone tag and missed messages to finally run down the Rev with the aid of his publicist and pull off a cell phone interview while he drove to Tampa, Fla. for the next gig on his current tour.

Asked how much of his verbal fireworks are on-the-spot improvisation and how much are scripted, Wirtz said, "It depends how good a time I'm having. When the crowd gets really into it, my act is 70 percent improvised. If I'm having a shitty time, it's 90 percent rote."

Having a father who is a Yale graduate and a mother who is an author and retired teacher, Wirtz grew up in a highly literate family, surrounded by books. After graduating from James Madison University in 1976, he spent three and a half years teaching Special Education at a camp for mentally handicapped kids in Gore, Va.

He claims he was prompted to give up his teaching career by virtue of two life-altering epiphanies. One was a circa-1980 performance in Augusta, Ga. by Clarence Fountain and The Mighty Clouds of Joy that left him emotionally wrought and literally weeping. "It's still the best show I've ever seen," he said. "I'm still in awe of how they related to and worked that audience."

The other was a friendship with legendary bluesman and barrelhouse piano player Sunnyland Slim. After seeing him play one night, Wirtz struck up a friendship and drove Sunnyland to his next several gigs and ended up living with him for several months in his dilapidated walkup apartment on Chicago's South Side.

"I spent three months meeting musicians and playing piano in South Side bars," Wirtz said. "It was so much fun that I decided that that's what I'd do for a living if I could make $100 a week at it. The last day job I ever had was on August 18, 1979."

Twenty years and eight albums later, Wirtz has amassed an almost cult-like following. His influences include "everyone from Muddy Waters to Elvis to Jerry Lee Lewis, Merle Haggard and Red Sovine." As he's quick to point out, however, his influences aren't solely musical -- as seen in his gift for appropriating the Bible Belt, revival-meetin' ethos of Oral Roberts, Jimmy Swaggart and Ernest Ainsley in a way that interweaves Pentacostalism and rasslin' to hilarious effect.

"We had a total of two TV stations when I was a kid growing up in Aiken [S.C.]," he explained. "One of the stations aired a gospel music show every Saturday morning that was followed by a rasslin' show. I never missed either one. That was formative.

"My family wasn't particularly religious," he continued, "but anybody growing up in the Deep South is Baptist by default. Radio and TV preachin', gospel singin' and rasslin' are in the air you breathe. Throw a little Three Stooges and a few psychedelic drugs into the mix and you have a pretty good idea of where I'm coming from."

The Rev sees close psychological parallels between "pro religion and pro rasslin'."

"Both started out as populist, highly local, almost fringe entertainments that were changed drastically by the advent of cable TV," he observed. "They became big business. They both require a certain suspension of disbelief, both generate tons of money and both exact unbelievable loyalty from their fans."

Wirtz should know whereof he speaks. He did a six-month stint as a manager in the Florida pro wrestling circuit in the early '90s and still referees on occasion. "You Are Nobody," one of the non-musical cuts on Best of the Wirtz, dates from that interim. It captures the Rev denouncing a hostile audience as "a bunch of ignorant little brats" and baroquely dissing a series of enemy rasslers as "human vegetable matter" and "piles of pigeon puke."

It tickles Wirtz to no end that "Sleeper Hold On Satan" -- one of his most highly requested "religion-and-rasslin'" spoofs -- got a ton of serious airplay on Christian radio stations in western Tennessee, and that a Nazarene youth group in West Virginia wrote a Sunday school skit around the song.

This weekend, fans and wanna-be fans can catch Wirtz performing such Reverend Billy classics as "Mennonite Surf Party," "Roberta" ("based on some folks I used to know up around Winchester, Va."), "Honky Tonk Hermaphrodite," "Momma Was a Deadhead," "Right Wing Roundup" (a social commentary done as a square dance call), and "Just Friends" (his most-requested song on morning radio).

Personally, I can't wait to see how he renders two of the new songs on Best of -- "WWED (What Would Elvis Do?)," a goof on the widely popular bumper sticker, "WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?)," and "Baby Got Dot," a spoof of Deepak Chopra ("that gangsta guru"). Done in rap with an Indian accent, it segues at the end into "Who Let the Sacred Cows Out?" with syncopated mooing in lieu of dog-woofing.

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