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Billy Club

In Santa Cruz and around the country, a new legion of fans are prepared for the Wirtz

By Steve Palopoli

For the last few years, I have been conducting what I call the Rev. Billy C. Wirtz Experiment. What this entails is that every year when Wirtz plays in town, I take a different person with me to the show. This subject group represents a wide range of listening habits, but they generally do share one thing in common: They would never go to a Billy C. Wirtz show.

We're talking goth girls, indie chicks and others who would normally have no interest in being anywhere near a mulleted, tattooed Southern man playing boogie-woogie-style blues piano.

At last, I can report my findings: 100 percent of the time, he knocks 'em dead. By the middle of the show, he has them laughing. By the end of the show, he has them drumming on the table top and shouting "Eat shit and die!" at me as part of his irresistibly unacceptable singalong group therapy.

It's really pretty remarkable to witness--from, you know, a scientific standpoint. But for the man himself, it's all in a night's Wirtz.

"It's hard to explain, but there's a rhythm to it, there's a flow to it," says the Rev. from his home in Florida. "And when it's not flowing, believe me, you can feel it. There's nothing worse than sitting at the piano up there with your butt cheeks clenched about to the point that somebody couldn't get a piece of dental floss between them, thinking, 'They're not buying it! You're sucking!'"

But as proven by my study, it usually does flow, and we do buy it. In fact, after more than 20 years of performing and a half-dozen albums, Wirtz is finding that he's perhaps more popular than ever--he describes this year as the busiest he can remember. But it hasn't gone to his head, nor does he think there's any secret to his demographic-defying appeal.

"All I do is I've studied my craft, and I just keep working on it," he says. "I never rest on my laurels and say OK, you've attained what you've tried to attain, there's no need to work any harder or change anything. It's never good enough. You know, there's always something that can be added or changed, or something you're seeing that's a weak spot."

No doubt some will raise an eyebrow when the man best known for songs like "Grandma vs. The Crusher," "Mennonite Surf Party" and "Sleeper Hold on Satan" talks about his "craft"--but that just means they've fallen for the act that Wirtz has spent years honing.

You Might Not Be a Redneck If ...

In reality, the redneck-reverend thing is just a persona he piles on at times and then constantly subverts with smart social satire and glimpses of the mastermind within. He'll have fun with it once again at his Kuumbwa show Friday, Sept. 17, but then drop it completely Monday and Tuesday when he goes to Watsonville to educate as part of Blues in the Schools. That's where he ditches the "reverend" act completely, transforming back into plain old Billy Wirtz, a connoisseur of blues music with about the most extensive working knowledge of the genre, its origins and its catalog of songs of anyone working today. He takes his work with middle-schoolers incredibly seriously, recalling, for instance, one eighth-grader who so connected to the blues music Wirtz assigned him to study that he went out and bought himself a T-Bone Walker CD.

"Then it turns out, they tell me that this kid is in a foster home, he's got some emotional problems, blah blah blah," says Wirtz. "They start telling you stuff like that, and you find that this is a kid who's glued himself to you all week, and man, that's some pretty serious shit. You realize you're doing more than just going in there and entertaining them and giving them a class. It does reach some people."

The South Park Factor

Perhaps he connects so well with eighth-graders because, by his own admission, he looks not unlike current wrestling fave the Undertaker. Plus, how can they not like a guy who thinks South Park is the height of pop culture?

"I think the best social satire out there right now is South Park," he says. "Did you see the one on Mel Gibson, on The Passion? I called five people and said, 'You've got to stay up tonight and watch the rerun.' It took some serious 'nads to take it to where they took it."

Not that he knows anything about taking the audience beyond where they would normally be willing to go. Well, OK, maybe a little.

"There's somewhat of a similarity between me and South Park in that there is an element of juvenile behavior to enjoying my show," he says. "And if you're willing to engage in that juvenile behavior, then you'll get that much more for your dollar out of my show. If you're willing to smack each other on the head, or stick your finger up your nose, or go 'I'll be friends with you, you'll be friends with me' while flipping the finger to whoever it was that broke your heart, then you'll go out of the show laughing and having that much more fun."

This affinity for edgier satirical humor--he started at a young age as a disciple of MAD magazine, the early National Lampoon and the decisively politically incorrect Brother Dave Gardner--is probably why he can't stand to be called a comedian. A musical satirist, sure. Even a musical humorist. Anything but a comedian.

Even as musical humorists go, he's rather an anomaly, since he actually cares about the music as much as the humor.

"Most musical satirists don't play a lot of music," he acknowledges. "I play a lot of music. There are people who come to my shows who like the funny stuff but are really there to hear that old-school blazin' boogie-woogie, which I enjoy doing."

Right about now he's enjoying it more than ever, considering that his return to heavy touring also gets him out of the path of whatever storm happens to be bearing down on his home in central Florida at the time.

"It's a good time right now," he says. "Aside from the hurricane thing."

The Rev. Billy C. Wirtz plays Friday, Sept. 17, at the Kuumbwa. Bob Malone opens at 7:30pm. Tickets are $21; call 831.479.9421.

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From the September 15-22, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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