Even back when he was playing the Electric Banana in the height of the Pittsburgh punk and post-punk era, for Robert Wagner, it was all about the songwriting.
The No Shelter and The Little Wretches frontman had songs to rock the house, but, taking his cues from Bob Dylan, Lou Reed and the like, he also had stories to tell. And they weren’t glamorous. They were stories of working people toiling in difficult circumstances.
“I’ve always been hit with this, ‘Your songs are so negative, your songs are so negative. Oh, that's really good, but nobody wants to hear that stuff.’ Well, I do want to hear this stuff. These are the stories that make me who I am. These are the stories that make my people who they are. And I want to tell them.”
Wagner indulges that side of his craft on the latest album from The Little Wretches, “Red Beets and Horseradish.” It sprung from Wagner seeking out the recipe for a dish that his family served on holidays.
“I went on the internet to find a recipe because every time I tried to make it,” he says, “I wasn't quite getting the flavor, and then I found out the whole dish has religious symbolism, which depends on the ethnicity: Everything from the blood of our people and the bitterness of their sufferings, the blood of our savior and the bitterness of his suffering, to the bitterness of our suffering and bondage, with the red beets just being for flavor.”
The spark for the album, whose songs stretch over a 10-year writing span, was “Duquesne,” a rolling, mid-tempo ballad about his grandmother, at 78, still working to make ends meet.
Wagner sings, “We came halfway around the world to be here/for this?/for what?/somebody’s bright idea/Nobody really believed it would be paved with gold/guess there’s no place on Earth that it’s good to be old…like me.”
“The whole album was built around the song ‘Duquesne,’” Wagner says. “It was sort of the centerpiece and everything kind of fits into it one way or another. It's a song I've been kind of dabbling with forever. In fact, the very first performance of No Shelter,” he says of his original band, “we may have performed a song called ‘Duquesne.’ I was always working on it and was going to record it, but, look, I'm a better writer than I was when I was 18.”
The song wouldn’t have fit in with any of his other projects, but with “Red Beets,” he says, “The songs on here, I think they fit together: old people, sick people, crazy people, working people. There’s a song about my brother, about my grandmother, one from the point of view of a crazy lady I used to see wandering around the North Shore.”
Wagner, who has been teaching in Philadelphia the past few decades, recorded it here with The Little Wretches (including the lovely vocals of his ex-wife Rosa Colucci) in the midst of a tough month during the pandemic. He sent the band demos and then came to Pittsburgh for rehearsals in January 2021. The sonics of the record were dictated to some extent by that separation.
“I live 300 miles away and we're doing this during COVID,” he says, “so there were sessions where nobody showed up because they were either in quarantine or they'd been exposed. So that was a little bit of a challenge. My original audio-vision, I imagined this big grand sound. Some of the harmonic parts, I thought of them as placeholders that would be replayed by another instrument, but what I found out, in the end, is that they were written on the harmonica and they make the most sense on the harmonica. It all kind of came back to its roots and my grandiose ideas, they ended up on the cutting room floor.”
The Little Wretches will perform most of the album, along with other songs from the catalog, at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at McKeesport Little Theater. $12; eventbrite.com. Proceeds from the show will benefit the theater.