If such a title and its cover art put one in mind of a calm folk album, they'll be surprised as they listen. Boasting a style that hearkens back to grungy folk rock, with prominent acoustic guitar and harmonica in the mix, this album feels like a throwback to the days of protest music. Once you get past the first two tracks (which are more worshipful in tone), it becomes clear that that protest sound complements the lyrics. After all, this isn't just an album about Jesus; it's also an album about suffering and the hardships of life. The thought in my mind was one of Ecclesiastes sprinkled with a dash of the Psalms. That sprinkling comes in the form of the opening tracks, "Rise" and "Lovingkindness," and later in "Old Hundredth," a reworking of an Isaac Watts hymn.
Otherwise, Red Beets and Horseradish is more concerned with talking about the meaninglessness of life under the sun. Some songs, like "Palms & Crosses," "Heaven Was Open" and "It's Raining," handle that theme with a light but deft touch. They contain some great lines as well, such as "Tomorrow will decide what yesterday means" from "Palms & Crosses," while "It's Raining" humorously highlights when God's ways interrupt our life with the refrain, "God forbid you'd have to change your precious plans." Most of the songs here, however, explore life with an unflinching eye. "Nothing Was Given to Me," "Old Lillian's Story," and "Duquesne" all relate stories that are, frankly, depressing if not a little unsettling. That last track does contain an excellent breakdown of American culture that is worth a listen. Another noteworthy song is "Tiger Pajamas," which relates the story of a gay brother who was quite the wild child, causing complications for his family and complications for the singer and his relationship with God. [A language warning: "Tiger Pajamas" notes some people described the wild brother as "b*tchy".]
Most of these songs don't have an easy resolution or offer much light. The major exception is "Winter's Grace," which declares, "Some days the best I can do is clear a path for light." Along with the more worshipful tracks, this helps keep Red Beets and Horseradish slightly more balanced in its taste. Most of the time, it's more horseradish than beets, but fans of classic rock with biting lyrics will find it worthwhile to try this record. Themes of hardship, old age, and death mingle with expressions of faith and humor. It's not the most accessible album, but those wanting to try out a new side dish will be pleasantly surprised.- Review date: 4/5/22, written by John Underdown of Jesusfreakhideout.com
Record Label: None
Robert Wagner: I don't want to bore you with the details, but I'd been abandoned as a teenager. There'd been a lot of violence and drunkenness in my family, and the family disintegrated. I coped by living in my own little dreamworld.
I'd come to believe that everything I'd ever been taught was a lie. Family? A lie. Religion? A lie. School? An institution for brainwashing and social-conditioning. People were rats on a treadmill, working like dogs at jobs they hated to make house-payments and car-payments. A Godless and soulless existence, except to the extent that money and material possessions are gods, false-gods.
I hated everyone and everything. Providentially, however, I was able to go to college. I'd been raised to believe that education allows you to invent yourself, transform yourself, to become something other than a victim of your environment. And at the University of Pittsburgh, I enrolled in an experimental learning program based on self-directed learning, and I'm told it took me about five-minutes to be converted to Marxism.
Marxism, my comrades and I believed, showed how to change the world. What needed to change? EVERYTHING! And Marxism gave us the blueprint for how to do it. We called it "scientific socialism." We were extremely well-informed about current events, politics and economics. But it was very religious. Very cultish.
Through it all, however, I also had a secret prayer life. I'd attended Catholic elementary school. My mother had read a Children's Bible to me and my sister for bedtime stories. I used to attend mass every morning before school because I liked to sing the hymns. So even when I would have openly declared myself an atheist and a Marxist, I was having a private conversation with God.
Well, after my sophomore year at Pitt, I was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. The night before my big surgery, I had a little conversation with God. If I woke up and was still on this earth, I would never, not once in my life, do or say anything that I didn't believe in.
You know how monks take vows of chastity and poverty? I took a vow of no-compromise. I would make no attempt to fit into this Godless world. I would write songs, start a band, and change the world by changing the hearts of men. I would change the hearts of men with poetic imagery, rhythm, rhyme, guitars. I would honor the voiceless-people who labor their entire lives and end up with nothing- by letting them speak through me.
Do I sound like I'm full of myself? Me and my silly little songs? Changing the hearts of men? Really? Well, if not me, who? Do the work. Put your shoulder to the plough.
I'd have to teach myself how to do it, mind you, but I was well-versed in self-directed learning. So my brother and I started a band to be a vehicle for my songs, and thanks to the punk rock scene in Pittsburgh, there was a handful of places we might be able to perform.
In that era, you used to be able to catch a movie or have your choice of movies every night of the week if you lived in one of the student ghettos in Pittsburgh's university-community. Point Park College had a film series. The Carnegie Museum of Art was doing a film series. Pitt, Carnegie-Mellon, Pittsburgh Filmmakers. If you had a student ID, you could see a movie for almost nothing. Classics. Art house Movies. Underground movies. Foreign language films.
My bandmates and I went to see a movie called THE 400 BLOWS. French-language with English subtitles. A Francois Truffaut film about a kid driven out of his home, surviving by stealing. Around the 60-minute mark, there's a scene where the kids are descending the steps of a cathedral after having robbed a rich family's home, and a priest is ascending the steps. The little thieves greet the priest, "Good morning, madame!" Angered that the boys have insinuated that he is not a man but a female, the priest turns around and yells something, and the subtitles appear as "LITTLE WRETCH."
I saw that and turned to my bandmates, "That's the name of our band. We're going to call ourselves The Little Wretches!"
For me, the symbolism was obvious. "Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me." The Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount-Blessed are the meek, the peacemakers, the reviled, the persecuted, the poor in spirit. In short, BLESSED ARE THE LITTLE WRETCHES. Get it?
I hope that wasn't too long-winded, but that's how I came to be the leader of The Little Wretches.
Robert: I can't say that I ever felt like I was part of any scene, underground or otherwise. But let's get a few things straight, there are people who regard terms like "underground" or "avant-garde" as something cool, something exclusive. We don't cater to the slobbering masses. We cater to the connoisseur. Give me a break.
The so-called underground was just a bunch of highly privileged college kids dressing up and pretending to be Marcel Duchamp or Luis Bunuel. Surrealists. Dadaists. Nihilists. Beatniks. Nothing-is-true-Everything-is-permitted people. They could afford to take risks because they were from elite families, attended elite universities, and it was all fun and games for them. They sneered at people like me, working class kids who actually believe in what I'm doing.
The so-called "underground scene" was the only place a band like The Little Wretches could get away with what we were doing because there were no rules. In fact, we were considered too mainstream for the underground. We were boring. Passe. Our sincerity was pitiable.
No self-respecting communicator wants to be in the underground. The underground is for political refugees, sexual outlaws, criminals, revolutionaries, people who have to hide. No self-respecting communicator wants to hide. We want to shine our light. If you have a light, you don't hide it under a basket. You want to shine it on the whole wide world.
So that was my thing. I wanted The Little Wretches to be IN the world but not OF the world. We would go head-to-head, toe-to-toe, punch-for-punch with worldly artists. We wanted to compete with the mainstream in the mainstream. We were never content to be segregated into a niche ghetto.
Some of the people in the so-called underground scene, you knew in a year or two they'd be taking over daddy's corporation or working in finance. A very small few of us were "lifers." I knew from the start that I was a "lifer."
Robert: I like the way you say, "dormant." I don't know if that's really the right word for it. Let's see if I can explain this.
When I started, I truly believed, as I do now, that I am bringing something to the table, that I have something that others don't have, something that is more than just a giggle, a cigarette, a cup of coffee or an after-work cocktail. I truly believe have something to say, something that will hold up across time, across generations. And our recent success seems to bolster this. Or maybe I'm just deluding myself.
But The Little Wretches reached a point where the band was not economically sustainable. My bandmates had children to raise, mouths to feed, homes to pay for. We couldn't tour to promote our music. So I had to go from being a bandleader to being a solo performer. I had a catalogue of really powerful songs, and I had to figure out how to connect them to an audience.
Did you ever hear of Lee Bontecou? She'd made a big splash as a sculptor and painter and had seemingly disappeared. The Carnegie International decided to do a retrospective of her work, and the person curating the project discovered that Lee Bontecou was alive and well, teaching at a small college in Pennsylvania and continuing to produce breathtaking and otherworldly art in her barn. She had never stopped working and creating, but she had withdrawn from the rat-race.
So I take a lot of inspiration from Lee Bontecou. I had the music, that I knew. But the so-called music industry was changing. The Little Wretches had "aged out." Nobody is going to invest in a band of middle-aged people who can't tour. The youth-market is not going to chase after balding old men. So there was an awkward period where there no longer seemed to be any place for me on the playing field. But I never stopped working.
Now, thanks to digital technology, The Little Wretches are a couple of clicks away for any music-seeker on the planet. And thanks to the Covid pandemic, touring was put on a hiatus, kind of leveling the field. It's like the caution flag at the Indie 500. Slow down. Circle the track. Re-start.
So I'm in a pretty good position. People who discover The Little Wretches now have our entire catalogue to explore. And I'm still trying to break through to a wider audience, a broader platform. I'm back in the game, so to speak.
Robert: As a songwriter, my models had been Bob Dylan, Lou Reed and Ray Davies, so the '60s and '70s influence makes sense. Not too processed. Kind of like apples picked from a tree in an abandoned orchard out in the woods somewhere. Wild berry bushes. Weeds and wildflowers.
The earliest version of The Little Wretches involved my lyrics and melodies, me strumming an electric guitar like an acoustic guitar, my brother playing a counterpoint melody on the violin in a register above my voice, and bassist Ed Heidel playing a different counterpoint underneath. Very simple, but also kind of symphonic. And we had doo-wop and surf-style background vocals with hand-percussion. Very fun and groovy.
With RED BEETS & HORSERADISH, I wanted to return to that original formula, but I had big ideas as to how to execute it. I imagined flutes and pipes, something big and majestic like The Chieftains. The guitar and harmonica parts you hear were placeholder parts-melodies that were going to be replaced by flutes, violins, cellos and big fat electric guitars.
But after laying down the tracks, the harmonica melodies sounded best on harmonica. The guitar lines sounded best on guitar. I guess we are what we are. A strumming guitar. Some piano chording from HK Hilner to fatten the sound. Great bass-lines courtesy of John Carson. Steady beats courtesy of Mike Madden. Jack Erdie, Rosa Colucci and Emma Golebie chiming in with handclaps and finger-snaps and background vocals.
So we didn't set out to sound like this. It's just how we sound.
Robert: My own "mission statement," if you can call it that, comes from Isaiah. "The Lord God hath given me the tongue of a teacher that I may be able to speak a word in season to him that is weary." That's Isaiah 50:4. I'm a teacher. My target-audience is "him that is weary." Like Jesus and the Biblical authors, I teach by telling stories.
I once overheard a conversation on a bus between two middle-aged men on their way to offer testimony in court. They apparently lived in a neighborhood with a lot of violence, and to testify in court would invite the possibility of witness-intimidation. The one guy asked the other if he was going to buy a gun. The answer was, "The Twenty-third Psalm is my gun."
I flipped open the Bible one time and read something like, "Whoever puts his shoulder to the plough and looks back is not worthy to enter the Kingdom of God." Do the work. Don't calculate the risks. Don't calculate the rewards. Do the work God has called on you to do, and let God take care of the rest.
Another one, and this resonates with me because my music has not historically been embraced by people in the world of contemporary Christian music, is the story of the risen Jesus walking alongside people on the road to Emmaus. He's right next to him, but they don't recognize him.
I mean, stick a shamrock on a hamburger, and it's an Irish hamburger. Stick a cross on a hamburger, and it's a Christian hamburger. Here I am, writing with authenticity, precision and elegance about life and man, God's greatest gift and His prize creation, the image of God on this earth, but because I'm not parroting scripture and singing in a choir loft, many people who share my faith don't recognize what I am doing.
Then again, my target audience is him that is weary. And I'm supposed to be doing the work without regard for reward or consequence.
Isaiah spoke of a voice crying in the wilderness. That's what I try to be.
Robert: Some people have photographic memories. I used to be able to recall conversations. I was pretty much a loner, so I spent a lot of time lurking around, eavesdropping on the people around me. And I could sit down with my notebook and write word-for-word what I'd overheard.
NOTHING WAS GIVEN TO ME is verbatim a monologue delivered by my dad one Thanksgiving. He was sitting alone at the kitchen table, talking to himself, and those are the words he spoke, unaware that I was listening and transcribing them.
OLD LILLIAN'S STORY is verbatim a monologue delivered by a lady who lived in a tenement building next door. She'd knock on our door and come inside to get out of the cold. Her building didn't have any heat. Those words are HER words.
TIGER PAJAMAS is me wrestling with God over the life of my brother, the kid in tiger pajamas who was always crashing into something and never meant nobody no harm. Why did he have to suffer? What did he have to die young? God, I want to know why you did that to my brother? My Christian friends have a hard time with the idea of wrestling with God. You're supposed to worship Him, praise Him, glorify His name.
I try, as I said earlier, to write with authenticity, elegance and precision about people. We are made in His image, so if I do my job well, I am worshipping, praising and glorifying Him by showing evidence of his handiwork in this fallen world.
Robert: The thought behind that question is pretty encouraging to me, not even encouraging. Moving. Touching. I mean, that you can even ask a question like that shows that you actually listened, paid attention and cared. You used the word "protagonist." You're speaking to my like I am a writer. Thank you! That's a great question.
There are four songs on the album with female protagonists. You mentioned "Duquesne" and "Old Lillian's Story." "Palms & Crosses" has the single mom with three small kids and people, probably women, shopping for wedding and birthday gifts. And "Walked Along" tells of a woman, possibly schizophrenic or so lost in thought that she's oblivious to the world, walking the streets, trying to clear her head, staring at the ground, unable or unwilling to make eye-contact with other people.
I didn't set out with an agenda about vulnerable women. I wanted a group of songs that held together like scenes in a movie. Each scene or song stands on its own, but together they tell larger story. I've got songs about sick people, crazy people, old people, people who are alone, and people who are encountering doubt, people who are angry at God, wrestling with God.
I suppose the odds are that half the characters would be women, but it's more than math. My mother, both of my grandmothers and a few of my aunts have had a profound impact on my life. In the Gospels, women play a pretty significant role. The woman at the well. The woman who is about to be stoned to death. Mary, Jesus' mother. Mary Magdalene. Mary and Martha. The woman who touches Jesus' garment.
Nah. Who am I kidding? It's just math. If you write about so-called ordinary people, half your characters are going to be female.
Robert: I have songs ready to be recorded, enough for a few albums, but my team is still short at least one key player, and that's a booking agent. I want to wake up in the morning thinking about where I'm playing tonight. Long-time supporters of the band are asking me if I'm going to tour as if I can snap my fingers and tour. I'm pretty good at writing songs, rehearsing bands, running recording sessions, maximizing my resources, communicating with audiences. I've got powerful stories to tell that nobody else is capable of telling, moving and potentially life-changing stuff.
But I need a booking agent. That's my prayer-for The Little Wretches to have a broader platform, to be able to step in front of a different audience every night. I need somebody as devoted to promoting the music as I am to writing and playing it.
Again, all I can do is put in the work. God has a plan. Please, God, provide a booking agent for The Little Wretches!
Robert: Go to our website, www.littlewretches.com. Send me an email. Write me a letter. Find us on Facebook. Like. Share. Comment. Send me a friend-request. Find us on YouTube. Comment on the videos and share them. Remember what I was saying about a booking agent? People, if you want to help us, bring me to your town to play. House-concerts. Coffeehouses. I want to play for you. I want to meet you. I want to be in the same room with you.
Robert: Mike Myers and Dana Carvey, Wayne and Garth. I'd help them put together a music festival. If Bill and Ted would agree to do a set of songs by The Little Wretches, maybe I'd perform with them. That may have been a silly question. But silly is good. Humor and levity are good. I need more of that.
Wow. You asked some great questions that allowed me to feel recognized and appreciated. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
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