A show by the Rev. Billy C. Wirtz, the self-proclaimed leader of the Church of Polyester Worship and Horizontal Throbbing Teenage Desire, is a collision of styles and influences, not all of them musical. Wirtz is a master of boogie-woogie piano, with a steady left hand and an impossibly flexible right. He can fly up and down the keys like Jerry Lee Lewis, but he’s got a soft spot for old-school country, too: Almost every show he plays has a version of the Floyd Cramer classic “Last Date.”
But it’s not just about piano playing when the good reverend is onstage. He’s part preacher, part bluesman and part standup comedian, tossing off hilarious song intros and asides and stories throughout a set, sometimes mid-song. His range of topics can go from being too old to rock ’n’ roll (“What I Used to Do All Night [Now Takes Me All Night to Do]”) and “Hey You Little Bastards [Get Off of My Lawn]”) — to PC culture (“Do the Toleration”) to a something bordering on gospel (“Sleeper Hold on Satan”). But hey, he was once a professional wrestling manager.
Wirtz’s love affair with boogie-woogie piano began in the early 1960s. “I can remember watching this show called ‘Shindig,’” he says. “It was one of the first shows where they featured rock bands with people dancing and all that stuff. And the house band was called the Shindogs, and the piano player was Leon Russell. He played all that wild Jerry Lee stuff and I thought, ‘Wow, this is great.’ Then when I was 13 or 14, I saw Otis Spann playing with Muddy Waters. He had that left hand going with that modified boogie-woogie blues piano, and I knew that’s how I wanted to play. It never fails; you can play that for any crowd, and they light up.”
As for his stream-of-consciousness style of performing, Wirtz says that he tries never to play the same show twice. There are some lines that he uses regularly, but he likes to wing it as much as possible. “I’ve got to read the crowd,” he says. “I’m an entertainer. I try to engage the audience and make them say, ‘You’ve got to go see him because you never know what he’s going to do.’ If you’ve got one of those nights where everything is flowing, you can go to other places; you’re willing to take a chance. And it also keeps it from becoming too rote for me.”
At the end of the day, Wirtz says it’s all storytelling, whether he’s doing it vocally or instrumentally. “Sometimes you can tell the story easier between songs,” he says, “and sometimes you can tell it better playing the piano. When you go up the scale, you’re asking the question; when you come back down, you’re answering it.”
One of the stories Wirtz is telling right now is about cannabis legalization. He’s largely shied away from the current-events material he played in the late ’90s and early ’00s, but this hot-button issue is one close to his heart.
“Medical marijuana saved my life,” he says. “I had a pretty terrible opiate addiction, and I used medical marijuana under a doctor’s care, along with meditation and yoga, and it helped me kick morphine, Xanax, Adderall and tobacco. I’m very upfront about that in my show. I tell people that this is the face of opiate addiction.”
There is a bit of a twist, though, as you might expect. “After I tell them that, I do add that I once made a pizza upside down, and I once got into the wrong car at 3 a.m.,” he says.
Artist: Rev. Billy C. Wirtz
Venue: Dr. Mac Arnold’s Blues Restaurant, 1237 Pendleton St., Greenville
Date: Thursday, Jan. 12, 8 p.m.
Info: 864-558-0747, drmacarnoldsbluesrestaurant.com