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The Boston Phoenix Out of the Mosh Pit and into the Swing

Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Cherry Poppin' Daddies, Brian Setzer, and more...

By Matt Ashare

JULY 20, 1998:  It's Sunday night at the Roxy Ballroom in Boston -- last Sunday night -- and the band on stage look like something out of Guys and Dolls minus the dolls. There are eight of them, all swanked out in vintage-style wide-lapeled jackets with just-as-wide ties, button-down shirts, those Rat Pack hats men wore from the beginning of Prohibition till the end of the Second World War (I think they're called fedoras), two-tone patent-leather shoes -- and if I could get close enough, I'm sure I'd be able to smell some cologne. The music, well, it's a seasoned blend of jazz and blues with maybe a little touch of Latin spice and plenty of heidi-heidi-hos thrown in for good measure, all horns (four of them) and upright bass with a little guitar vamping in the background and plenty of kick in the drums. It's the stuff pre-rock-and-roll pop was made of, the sort of tunes your parents might have danced to when they were your age only they're probably not quite old enough to have been around for the Lindy.

No need to worry, the Lindy -- or at least some loose approximation of it -- appears to be making a belated comeback, as does the music known as swing, though some of it also sounds an awful lot like jump blues. But what's truly remarkable is that the audience for this revival -- the hundreds of fans who helped sell out Big Bad Voodoo Daddy's Sunday-night show at the Roxy -- is young and, well, restless. Yes, these are probably some of the same kids who were throwing their jeans-and-flannel-clad bodies into the mosh pit of grunge a few years ago. And though a good zoot suit is pretty hard to come by in these parts, they're doing their best to look the part, even if that just means settling for a nice pair of khakis from the Gap.

The new swing, as my friends in California all tell me, started out as a West Coast thing a couple years ago, which may be just further proof that they're way ahead of us out here when it comes to moving backwards. Bands like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy (Hollywood), who are back in Boston to play a free show at the Hatch Shell this evening (July 16), the Royal Crown Revue (Los Angeles), and Indigo Swing (San Francisco) all seem to have spent a couple of years cutting their teeth by playing retro-night residencies at one hip local club or another, just as in the old days, only it wasn't really retro back in '37 or '42. Two of these groups, appropriately enough, received their first dose of national attention via film soundtracks: Big Bad Voodoo Daddy on Swingers and the Royal Crown Revue on The Mask. But all have benefitted immeasurably from the left-field success of North Carolina nostalgists Squirrel Nut Zippers and, earlier this year, Oregon rowdies Cherry Poppin' Daddies. And swing has already spread enough for BMG to have made a deal to manufacture and distribute a Slimstyle compilation titled Swing This, Baby! (due out August 11) featuring tracks by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, the Cherry Poppin' Daddies, the Royal Crown Revue, Boston's own Bellevue Cadillac, and former Stray Cat Brian Setzer.

"It's finally starting to hit the East," remarks Setzer, who started swinging it himself roughly six years ago when he formed the Brian Setzer Orchestra big band out in his adopted home town of, yes, Los Angeles. "The East Coast has been the slowest thing for us, but now it's starting to turn."

Setzer, whose Orchestra just released its third CD, The Dirty Boogie (Interscope), is coming to play the Roxy this Wednesday, July 22. And starting in August, just in time for the release of a new Squirrel Nut Zippers CD on Mammoth, the Roxy is planning to turn every Friday night into a swing thing. Meanwhile, Bill's Bar has already taken to the trend with its "Swing the Night Away" Thursdays, featuring exotica DJ Brother Cleve (of Combustible Edison) and, for the month of July, a gang of East Coast toughs who go by the name of Dem Brooklyn Bums. The Bums call themselves a "Big Band" on their debut EP There Goes the Neighborhood; they appear to be a few players short of the real deal, but they make up for that particular oversight with an excess of moxie: their label is called YouGottaProblem WitDis Records, and bandmembers include "Broccoli" Rob Cittadino on bass and vocals, Timmy "Pimento" Clemente on guitar, and Ray "Cappicola" Grapone on drums. The Bums' set includes old Louis Jordan, Louis Prima, and Cab Calloway numbers as well as retro-styled originals like "They Call Him Mr. Zoot Suit" (not to be confused with Big Bad Voodoo Daddy's "Mr. Pinstripe Suit") and "Baseball Bat Boogie."

Setzer, on the other hand, records and tours with an ensemble that Count Basie and Gene Krupa would recognize as a traditional 16-piece big band, charts, monogrammed music stands, and all. "I'm so glad to hear someone say the word 'chart,' because nobody seems to know what that is," he says. "Most people I talk to, they think the band just plays. But when you've got 16 guys up there you really have to have everything written out."

Setzer has taken a few liberties with the big-band format, like adding electric guitar as a lead instrument and, on The Dirty Boogie, bringing on a rockabilly-style slap-bassist. "The only reason I hadn't had a slap bass on the previous two albums is that I couldn't find a guy who could read charts and play slap bass. I mean, there are some great rockabilly guys, but they can't read. And I need guys who can at least read, if not the chart and bass clef, at least the master rhythm chart."

Which inevitably seems to bring up the prickly issue of authenticity -- do contemporary swingers Big Bad Voodoo Daddy play the music the way it's supposed to be played? A review last year in the New York Times, for example, pointed out that there are dozens of bands in cities like New Orleans who swing better and more authentically than Squirrel Nut Zippers. But I would argue that the Zippers and the Cherry Poppin' Daddies and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy are connecting with young audiences because they're not overly concerned with technique and/or doing things by the book. They're all technically accomplished enough to do what they do well, but rather than playing a curatorial role, their ambition and purpose is to reach out and entertain, to make swing relevant in a contemporary context.

Why swing? And why now? The consensus seems to be that, like its equally horn-y cousin ska, swing represents a fun-loving, dressed-up backlash against the dressed-down angst and rage of alternative rock, a point that wasn't missed when Big Bad Voodoo Daddy broke into a cheeky snippet of Nirvana's "Smells like Teen Spirit" at the Roxy. With their snazzy threads and horn section, skasters the Mighty Mighty Bosstones certainly helped set the stage for groups like the Cherry Poppin' Daddies. And in the wake of alterna-rock's drab fashion sensibility and straightforward presentation -- not to mention the lack of performance that characterizes so much of electronica -- swing does offer a welcome dose of theater, with its colorful costumes and stylized poses. It's also probably fair to say that some of the groundwork for this swing thing was laid by the lounge/exotica revival of the early to mid '90s, and that swing has done lounge one better by setting cocktail culture to an energetic danceable beat.

Brian Setzer has his own theory. "I think this stuff is all in us -- you might have heard swing as a kid on a Rice Krispies commercial. So it's in our psyche. Whereas I don't know if something like ska really is. I don't see how they're going to get ska in Iowa. But the rockabilly, the jazz, the country, the blues, and the swing is all there. It's just part of our culture. So I think the revival is fantastic. The only mistake some of the new bands make is that they don't want to be called swing. And I'm like, 'Oh, no, you gotta call it swing.' You have to. What else are you going to call it?"



Swing Sets

* BIG BAD VOODOO DADDY (Coolsville/EMI). The second CD by these Hollywood swingers of Swingers-the-movie fame, featuring a cover of Cab Calloway's "Minnie the Moocher" and retro-styled originals like "Mr. Pinstripe Suit."

* Andrew Bird's Bowl of Fire, THRILLS (Rykodisc). A Squirrel Nut Zipper sideman, Bird strikes out on his own with Thrills, a CD featuring two Zippers and a decidedly vintage-sounding take on swing.

* Cherry Poppin' Daddies, ZOOT SUIT RIOT (Mojo). The fourth album from the Daddies, and the first to achieve Top 40 success, thanks to the title track and to the way they've been embraced by the ska-punk nation via tours opening for the Mighty Mighty Bosstones and this summer's Warped Tour.

* Dem Brooklyn Bums Big Band, THERE GOES THE NEIGHBORHOOD (YouGottaProblem WitDis). Self-released six-song EP by NYC's premier swing band.

* 8-1/2 Souvenirs, HAPPY FEET (Continental/RCA). The RCA re-releases of the debut album by an Austin-based fivesome who take their name from a Fellini film and a Django Reinhardt tune, resemble Squirrel Nut Zippers in their inclusion of a female singer, and can swing in English, French, Spanish, and Italian.

* Indigo Swing, ALL ABOARD! (Time Bomb). San Francisco swingers who started a residency at Club Deluxe back in 1994 and finally released their debut CD this past Tuesday.

* Royal Crown Revue, MUGZY'S MOVE (Warner Bros.). The 1997 major-label debut by the band who had a cameo on the Jim Carrey flick The Mask, and whose follow-up CD is reported due from Warner Bros. in late August.

* The Brian Setzer Orchestra, THE DIRTY BOOGIE (Interscope). Setzer's third big-band outing, and his first with a bona fide slap-bass player, featuring a swinging version of his Stray Cats hit "Rock This Town."

* Squirrel Nut Zippers, HOT (Mammoth). The Zippers' second full-length, but the one that put them, the album's title track, and the swing revival in general on the charts. The follow-up is slated for an August 4 release.

* SWING THIS, BABY! (Slimstyle/BMG). Due in stores on August 11, this 15-track compilation features Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Cherry Poppin' Daddies, the Brian Setzer Orchestra, Royal Crown Revue, and other up-and-comers.


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