Hee haw meets Pink Floyd
by Seth Rogovoy
(NORTH ADAMS, March 18, 2003) – On the surface, Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” – perhaps the most popular, progressive-rock concept album of all time – doesn’t seem to have much in common with Hank Williams.
But one day a few years back, the members of Canadian country and western band Luther Wright and the Wrongs were traveling from one gig to another in their van when the song “Another Brick in the Wall,” the biggest hit spawned from “The Wall,” came on the radio.
“It just was one of those rock and roll epiphanies on the road, the product of too many miles of bad food and bad coffee,” said Luther Wright in a phone interview earlier this week.
“The song ‘Another Brick in the Wall’ came on and we started talking about it and how it was based in classic country archetypes,” said Wright. “And musically, the chords were classic country chords, G and A-minor. It became clear it was our mission, and it turned into this megaproject and we couldn’t stop ourselves.”
The mission turned out to be a wholesale reinvention of “The Wall” as a country and bluegrass album, the definitive, early-‘80s opus of alienation rendered through the honky-tonk aesthetic of Luther Wright and the Wrongs.
The result was a CD, “Rebuild the Wall” (Back Porch), and a year-long concert tour that stops at the Club B-10 Theater at Mass MoCA on Saturday night at 8, when Luther Wright and the Wrongs will perform their hillbilly versions of songs like “Goodbye Blue Sky,” “Comfortably Numb” and “Is There Anybody Out There?” with banjos, mandolins and fiddles instead of synthesizers, dry ice and computer programs.
“It’s been great,” said Wright about the unexpected fame the project has brought to the group, which previously was known pretty much only in its home province of Ontario, but which in the past year has been profiled in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. “It’s gotten us playing all over Canada and the States, it introduces us as a band with previous original music, and gets us to towns to show stuff off as a band.”
Wright admits that it’s an unlikely success story. “It wasn’t like a music industry marketing project,” he said. “But it worked on so many levels for us. There’s the story itself, a story of loss and disassociation. There’s the blank stare, the narrator’s wife leaving him, his father leaving him as a kid, his mother not being there for him.
“As a child he disassociated. As an adult, it’s the story of the rock star as the great communicator, and the irony of him as a disassociated basket case. Something about that made it feel the same as the hurting pain you hear in Hank Williams. It’s about a man with his problem and demons, like Merle Haggard.”
After the group finished recording the complete, 45-minute song cycle, they sent off a copy to Pink Floyd songwriter Roger Waters and crossed their fingers hoping for his approval.
“We said we’d do whatever he said,” said Wright. “But he was very cool about it and said go for it and gave his permission.”
In the year or so since “Rebuild the Wall” has been released and the band has been touring behind it, they have learned a lot more about the intricacies of Waters’s rock opera.
“It’s all pervasive,” said Wright. “Everyone has some memory of it. And there’s an appreciation of layer upon layer. It’s like an onion being peeled. The songs are so great. We have a real appreciation for the songwriting.
“Once we broke it down and figured out the melodies and chord progressions, it opened up. To take those songs, the vision, and to create a concept record, to put a story together and make it flow, was just amazing.
“‘The Wall’ is probably the easiest concept record to grasp. It’s simple enough to be classic, hard-rock headbanger music. At first I thought it was a joke, and embarrassing. But the more we got into it, the reverence level increased.
“Maybe our album could just shine another light on it. In our humble way we wanted to maybe add to the mystique of the history of that album. In a small way.”
The group, which includes Mauro Sepe on drums, Sean Kelly on bass, Dan Curtis on guitars, banjo and mandolin, and Olesh Maximew on pedal steel, has several albums to its credit, including “Hurtin’ for Certain,” and, mysteriously enough, an album called “Roger’s Waltz,” recorded several years before that fateful van ride that led the group to explore the work of a songwriter named Roger.
In its live performances, the band has resisted the temptation to supplement its performance with the sort of elaborate stage props and multimedia touches that became a signature of Pink Floyd concerts.
“We can’t bring the bales of straw and the farm implements and slide projectors with us everywhere,” said Wright.
Wright said the group is also resisting the pressure to follow up its remake of “The Wall” with a similar effort -- say, a bluegrass version of the Who’s “Quadrophenia,” or a twangy rendering of “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway” by Genesis.
“It’s way too much work, and we do so much of our own stuff,” said Wright. “But a friend of ours wants us to do Jesus Christ Countrystar.
“‘The Wall’s a great hook, but there’s more to us than that.”
[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on March 22, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]
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