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NewCityNet Rag's time

Old music gets back in the swing

By Dave Chamberlain

OCTOBER 27, 1997:  The major labels are ramming electronica down our throats like we're force-fed puppies. Acoustic music plugs away in a newfound underground, but country and Americana represent only a part of the backlash. The real edge of the returning pendulum is sharpened with revivalist bands. This week Chicago will witness two rapidly ascending revivalists, although their styles are as different as night and day. The Blue Rags play at Schubas October 24, the same night that Royal Crown Revue hits the stage at the Cubby Bear.

The Blue Rags record, "Rag-N-Roll" (Sub Pop), is a floor-stompin' rowdy collection of thirteen early-twentieth-century ragtime songs. Half originals, "Rag-N-Roll" includes covers boasting forgotten ragtime names such as Huddie Ledbetter, Joe Sullivan and Joe King Oliver.

But the Blue Rags don't just cover the songs, they energize them to the point of rock 'n' roll frenzy. The Rags don't play piano, they pound the piano. They don't play a stand-up bass, they work it for everything it's got. The result: one of the most exciting and compelling records released this year.

Mike Rhodes, drummer for the Blue Rags, claims the band's inspiration comes from their western North Carolina locale. "Sure it's hard to find a lot of this old stuff recorded," he says, speaking from his home in Ashville, North Carolina. "But around here, the real stuff is going down every day."

The band has been playing live for more than four years and they've toured sporadically, but Rhodes claims they were really waiting for their record to come out so they could become a road band for at least a year. "Right before we recorded the disc [which was tracked in one day at the Chicago Recording Company], we were starting to gain momentum, but we needed a disc." He cites as an influence fellow North Carolinians Southern Culture on the Skids, a band that rarely takes a break from the road .

But why are people, especially the ever-important youth demographic, being drawn to music written nearly 100 years ago? "The record industry," says Rhodes, "is pushing electronica so hard, that naturally the acoustic sound is making a comeback. And the Blue Rags' music is good-time music. We're not depressed, and our music isn't dark. Not that there isn't a place for that, but people coming to our shows are looking for something to tap their foot to." And maybe more. Rhodes claims that while touring the East Coast, the band saw mosh pits spontaneously erupt on two different occasions.

With a longer track record and infinitely more national exposure than the Blue Rags, the Royal Crown Revue is actually doing what many thought Chicago's Mighty Blue Kings would do two years ago: taking swing music (or jump blues) into the nineties mainstream. Benefiting from a spot on the VANS Warped Tour and more recently from heavy airplay for their video "Barflys at the Beach" on MTV, the Royal Crown Revue threatens to break down the door to mass appeal.

Scott Steen, the RCR's trumpet player, notes that it was far from an overnight success. At first, the band had a rockabilly following, along with a small group of L.A. and San Francisco punks. "When we first started playing," says Steen, "almost six years ago, L.A. had no swing clubs or swing nights. We played in rock venues and punk clubs. We even opened for a heavy-metal festival in Arizona.

"We didn't even know we had a young audience," Steen says, "until we had an all-ages show at the Palace and sold it out." The RCR slowly began playing more all-ages shows, and to consistently more people, eventually landing a spot headlining on one of the Warped Tour side stages.

That tour paved the way for a major swing comeback. "That was something else," recollects Steen. "Having a chance to play in front of an average of 2,000 kids who were actually paying attention." The kids must have like what they saw; Steen estimates that RCR sold 150 CDs after every show.

The Royal Crown Revue continues to play sold-out shows as they tour the country, proof of the growing popularity of swing among young concertgoers. "The kids have gotten into it," says Steen, "because they don't really know anything about it, much less the very beginning of rock. I mean, when I was growing up, I was into punk and ska. I had no idea who Cab Calloway was. To the kids, what we do is all new to them."


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