JUNETEENTH and News that Travels Slowly

This is me, Robert Andrew Wagner, founder of The Little Wretches, talking.
I am going to tell you some background about the three albums released today.
Consider these the liner-notes for albums you've yet to purchase.

 Click here to purchase BORN WITH A GIFT (plus live tracks and rare 7" singles) 

Click here to purchase WHEN IT SNOWS 

Click here to purchase UNDESIRABLES & ANARCHISTS 

First, BORN WITH A GIFT 

The title song was, for me, very specifically a reflection on the death of John Creighton. John Creighton appeared in the first series of shows The Little Wretches performed and was both a key part of the sound and the stage-presentation. You can read more about the early days of the band on this website’s BIO page. 

John Creighton and I founded NO SHELTER. Between the break-up of No Shelter and the formation of The Little Wretches, I led an aggressively improvisational band called ICU (Intensive Care Unit) and co-led a cover-band called RIP IT UP with Bill Oliver. 

During this time, the chemotherapy treatments I had been undergoing for a rare form on non-hodgkin’s lymphoma ended. I went from feeling poorly every day to suddenly feeling a vibrancy that grew daily. This changed everything. 

I'd always been serious about being a band-leader and songwriter. Recognizing that it would take a lifetime to become a master of improvisational music--and even then, I would be at best an imitator--I let go of the ICU project. I knew that I had both something to say as a writer and a natural power with words, and I had an intuitive sense that I was first and foremost a teacher. I teach through stories, and I tell stories through songs. So I thanked Bill Oliver and resigned from RIP IT UP.

I took the lyrics and song-structures I’d created for No Shelter and began to rework them, recruiting my brother to join me with his violin. Joined by Little Ed Heidel and John Creighton from No Shelter and Chris Bruckhoff from a church-group, we were The Little Wretches. Our early shows, I’m told, were pretty cool. But John died, and my brother and I wanted more gigs and a broader audience, so we got louder and rockier in the hope of playing rock clubs. 

People in the audience used to approach me after shows with comments like, “You are really good, but your band sucks.” Seriously, I heard this after almost every show and took it to heart. So I went about building a band that was as good as the songs. I found Ellen Hildebrand, Mike Michalski and David L. Mitchell. 

Chris Bruckhoff, through his church-group, had become acquainted with Gregg Vizza of Audiomation, a professional recording studio in Belle Vernon, PA. I bought a block of time, and we recorded the BORN WITH A GIFT album in a single session, two-hours for tracking, and we returned a week later for one hour of mixing. All tracks were first takes with punch-ins where one of us had flubbed a note, and mixing consisted of setting the board up like a live show and riding the sliders for vocals and instrumental solos.

That’s how Dylan is said to have done it. That’s how the early Beatles are said to have done it. Live in the studio. Chuckie, Ellen, Mike, Dave and I prepared, played both boldly and within our abilities, and the BORN WITH A GIFT album was created. Lacking the cash to press an album and the CD format yet to be on the landscape, we released a CASSETTE. 

Till now, this material has been unavailable except on hand-made/home-burned CDs through friends and fans of The Little Wretches. 

The rare and live tracks are courtesy the personal collections of Mark Pinto, Chuck Parish and Gregg Bielski. 

WHEN IT SNOWS 

WHEN IT SNOWS did not originally appear as a product of The Little Wretches. 

After a decade of line-up changes, The Little Wretches was basically kaput. Losi and Ellen leaving the band to raise families put me back where I’d started—a catalogue of great songs but nowhere to play and nobody to play with. Poof. It was all gone. 

So now I was a solo artist. 

I am kind of limited as a singer and guitarist, but I used what was left of my network of musician friends and the good reputation I’d established as a bandleader to begin moving forward. 

My friend, the late Don Polito, had a notepad with the scripture-verses from Micah 6:8 about justice, mercy and humbleness. That’s where I got the name, “The Mercenes.” The Mercenes was going to be my fresh start without all the baggage and expectations associated with The Little Wretches. 

Steve Sciulli introduced me to Michael Ketter and Complex Variables Studio, and I started working on my new songs with Michael at the board, Angelo George on percussion, and Kevin Kilp on bass. 

I placed an ad for a singer and met Rosa Colucci. She'd attended McKee Place School with my brother, Chuckie, as it turned out. Ain’t nobody (except for Losi) could sing and improvise harmonies like Rosa. She liked the songs but had previously only performed in gospel choirs and karaoke bars. She had no idea what she was in for. And she brought along Andy Hoke to play bass and guitar. 

The thing started growing again. At one point, we were gigging with Jon Paul Leone on lead-guitar, Bob Banerjee on violin, and Dave Maund on Cello. James Hovan replaced Jon Paul on guitar. Jim Skal replaced Angelo George behind the kit. Not to use the Lord’s name in vain, but my God, this was an enormously talented group. 

WHEN IT SNOWS was assembled from songs I cut at Complex Variables Studio. Downloading/streaming didn’t yet exist. We had insufficient cash to press a CD. Few owned laptops, and few owned CD-burners. But with Michael Ketter’s help, I handmade twenty CD copies of WHEN IT SNOWS on the Complex Variables CD-burner, had a hundred cassettes made at George Heid Productions, and we had a little “release party” as “The Mercenes” at an African American Art Gallery in the Strip District, NOIR GALLERY.

The proprietor of the gallery was so pleased at the end of the evening that our event-fee was returned to us.  

UNDESIRABLES & ANARCHISTS 

The Mercenes kept growing, and Rosa and I eventually found John Carson and Ed Ussack on our team. We met John and Ed through their band with Will Postell, ROBESPIERRE. They'd gone to L.A. for a year to promote their band, and returned without Postell. Did they want to play with Rosa and me? We had a gig booked, offered John and Ed the slot as our rhythm section, and John and Ed went and told us that they wanted to be in The Little Wretches.

Okay, then. We’re The Little Wretches again. 

I was still trying to recapture the original vision I had for The Little Wretches. John Creighton, Ed Heidel, and Chuckie Wagner no longer walked the earth, but every one of the songs we’d played together remained current. Talk about aging well. Plus, I’d grown so much as a songwriter, arranger and producer. How could we NOT finally break through? 

THE LITTLE WRETCHES found itself with H.K. Hilner on piano, Mike Madden behind the kit (Mike had played with me on and off for about a decade), Rosa on vocals and percussion, and John Carson on bass. 

HK Hilner insisted that we enter some kind of battle of the bands, and we won studio-time with Dave Granati. 

Dave Granati, he of G-Force, The Granati Brothers, Mulberry Street Studios, touring as an opener for Van Halen, etc, knew instinctively what we were going for. He said that if we could set up like we were going to do a live-show and record just the instrumental tracks without a headphone mix, he’d be ready to track us as quickly as we could set up our amps. Capture the band live and hot, overdub the solos and vocals, and BAMM! The songs and music will speak for themselves.

Did we really do all this in five hours? Yes, I think so, and it didn’t cost us a penny. No, that’s not true. I think I paid extra for mastering and some duplication. But five-hours. Okay, so I’d done BORN WITH A GIFT in three. Maybe I was slowing down with age. 

Some of the songs on UNDESIRABLES & ANARCHISTS were newly written, and others dated back to the John Creighton/Chuck Wagner/Ed Heidel days. I still missed the sound of Chuckie’s violin, but this was the driving rock’n’roll sound I’d always imagined for these songs. I recall one person hearing this and saying, “People told me you were a folk-rock group. This is like a cross between The Clash and The B-52s.” 

Unfortunately, we’d become, as David Bowie sang in WATCH THAT MAN, “an old-fashioned band of married men.” This band was not going to tour. Our friends couldn’t come out to gigs anymore. Everybody was busy raising children and working jobs to feed them.

No local gigs. No airplay. Downloading did not yet exist, and I could not justify the expense of pressing a CD for a band that was not in a position to tour. What was the point? 

So that was that. The album was never released.

UNDESIRABLES & ANARCHISTS was my last attempt at claiming ownership of and “fronting” a rock band. 

In the time that has elapsed since this collection was committed to tape, I’ve mostly performed solo with an acoustic guitar. I’ve done the occasional “reunion” gig with Losi and Ellen. I recorded a live-concert album, SONGS FROM THE LAND OF UNIMARTS, PITBULLS + KARAOKE MACHINES. I’ve written a lot of sketches, monologues, and stuff for the stage. I’ve got a bunch of unreleased songs. 

But these three albums—BORN WITH A GIFT, WHEN IT SNOWS, and UNDESIRABLES & ANARCHISTS—are kind of like the beginning, middle and end of a movie. I believe in this material and want to give people a chance to hear it, to expand the audience beyond a small circle of aging friends. 

How can you help? 

Share it. Post it. Message me if you know of a potential contact-point. I can and do still play each of these songs. If you heard me on stage with Rosa or Losi, you might be disappointed in hearing me solo. But my solo shows are no joke.

House-concerts, private parties, coffehouses, clubs…. Ask me to play. PLEASE. The answer in advance is YES.

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