Austin Trio Brings Swing & Jazz To Macey
SOCORRO, N.M. September 26, 2013 – Swing dancers and hot jazz lovers are in for a treat when the Austin-based Western swing-band trio, Hot Club of Cowtown, performs in concert at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 4 at New Mexico Tech’s Macey Center in a Performing Arts Series (PAS) concert.
For guitarist Whit Smith, fiddler Elana James and bassist Jake Erwin, it has always been about staying true to their roots. Purposely staying out of the musical mainstream, Hot Club of Cowtown has created an international following for their sonic personification of joy and a unique sound inspired by their namesakes: “Hot Club” from the jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt and violinist Stephane Grappelli’s Hot Club of France; and “Cowtown” from the Western swing influence of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys.
“You can’t get much closer to the roots of Western swing music than Bob Wills and his band,” said PAS Director Ronna Kalish. “Wills, who had a long career from 1929 to 1969, was known as ‘The King of Western Swing,’ and this young musical trio certainly honors that tradition,” she said.
“And, we have two special treats for the evening: Bill Giebitz and Jeanne Dixon, who perform under the name ‘Unplug the Couch,’ will perform a short, opening set,” continued Kalish.
Giebitz, a charter member of The Vigilante Band and local luthier, plays guitar. Dixon, on fiddle and mandolin, is a natural health practitioner in Socorro, who shares vocal duties with her spouse in performing original swing-folk music.
“Also, we’ll be carving out plenty of floor space in the Macey Center Auditorium for swing dancers of all ages,” Kalish said. “I think it’s going to be a very entertaining evening for everyone.”
“For those who would like a few hints on swing dance before getting out on the floor,” mentioned Kalish, “we’ll have a free-with-a-concert-ticket, one-hour beginning swing dance class prior to the concert, 6-7pm, in Macey Center, given by New Mexico Tech Student dancers Amanda Innis and Brian Senft.”
It’s also going to be a busy weekend in Socorro, and Kalish advises concert-goers to purchase tickets early. “The first Saturday in October is always a busy one with tours at the VLA west of Socorro, Oktoberfest at the Hammel Museum, 40th Anniversary Events at the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge, all events which bring lots of visitors to town,” she said.
Since their first recording in 1998, Hot Club of Cowtown has logged plenty of globe-trotting miles, earning a cult reputation as the hardest-swinging Western swing trio on the planet.
The first American band to tour Azerbaijan, they have opened stadiums for such artists as Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson, and continue to bring their brand of Western swing to a wide range of festival audiences all over the world.
Though Wills’ pre-WWII recordings have always been the fundamental inspiration for the trio’s repetoire and style, it has taken the band a dozen years to fully honor the King of Western Swing.
Three years ago, a tour in England led the trio to a London studio where they spent two days recording a 14-song marathon of Wills tunes. The result was “What Makes Bob Holler,” a tribute to the man known as the co-founder of western swing (with Spade Cooley), while putting Hot Club’s own signature on each song.
“We had been meaning to make this album for a long time,” said James. “This is music from the days when guys toured and sat on a bus with no air conditioning, no real food, for days. “It was a different time. These guys were pretty hardcore,” she said.
Again, consider the times: Wills, born on a Texas farm, left his family at the age of 16 and hopped a freight train, a popular form of transportation for drifters of that era. “Jim Rob,” as Wills was known at the time, traveled from town to town picking up odd jobs, at one point falling from a moving train and later being chased by railroad police.
If one listens to the lyrics and melodies from Wills’ songs, you can almost hear the chords of a train whistle, and the exuberance of riding the rails, a kind of western-styled “On the Road” experience.
But Hot Club wasn’t content to rest on the laurels of the Wills tribute recordings. By digging even deeper into their roots and refusing to modernize, the band offers up one of their most exciting recordings to date – an imaginative pairing of obscure B-sides with some of Wills’ most popular work.
Tunes such as “Big Balls in Cowtown” and “Stay a Little Longer” are numbers that audiences love to hear live, so it was a no-brainer to gather them onto a disk. Others, like “Osage Stomp” and “The Devil Ain’t Lazy” might not be as well known, but they reflect the spirit of what originally attracted Smith and James to this music.
“We’re playing what knocked us out about Western swing in the first place – the early fiery energy and jazzy improvisations,” said James.
“What Makes Bob Holler” may have taken two days to record, but the band has played these songs on tour for years. Their album reflects the same spirited live vibe, and offers the trio a terrific platform to show off their musicianship and flaunt these inspirations: Smith’s hot electric guitar played through a vintage 1936 Gibson amplifier, James’ sometimes gorgeous, sometimes frenetic fiddle, and Erwin’s jaw-dropping slap bass, all mixed with three-part harmony vocals.
Smith and James originally met through an ad in the classified music section of The Village Voice in 1994, and played together in New York City before relocating to San Diego in 1997, where they spent a year playing for tips and building up their repertoire.
By 1998, they had relocated to Austin, Texas, and in 2000 added Erwin on bass, finalizing the Hot Club’s lineup.
Like any scrappy modern band, Hot Club dwells between the daily grind of touring and the euphoria of its live shows. Years of crisscrossing the USA in a silver Ford van through a landscape where local traditions are becoming more and more diluted, and modern life more electronic, have galvanized this Texas trio who are more devoted than ever to keeping their music sincere, free of irony, and focused on a simpler time.
The Holler recordings arrived on the heels of 2009’s more eclectic “Wishful Thinking,” an Americana radio Top 100 album lauded by the Austin Chronicle’s Jim Caliguiri as “ . . .the Cowtowners at their peak,”and David Eldridge, in the Washington Times, as “ . . . one of the year’s most unexpected listening pleasures.”
Hot Club of Cowtown’s performances remain an engaging blend of what the trio does best – whatever moves them at the moment.
“We have faith in the system that is the band,” said James. “We plug into this energy and it takes us away.”
Smith describes their shows as “Like a rock ’n’ roll show . . . people pick up on the energy and the sincerity. What the trio has is a rare thing – there’s a chemistry that’s unmistakable.”
“As always, and as I say at each PAS performance, we are so grateful to the faithful sponsors whose support allows us to bring first-class entertainment to central New Mexico,” Kalish said. “Where else can you find ticket prices this low for top-drawer performances?”
Sponsors for Hot Club of Cowtown are the City of Socorro, Associated Universities, Inc. (National Radio Astronomy Observatory), New Mexico Tech Student Government Association, First State Bank of Socorro, Denby Auble’s Blue Corn Music, Best Western Hotel, KUNM and KYRN (Mine Country 102.1) of Socorro.
Tickets are $16 for adults, $14 for seniors and $8 for youth, and are available online at www.nmtpas.org, or, at the N.M. Tech Cashier’s Office (second floor of Fidel Center), Brownbilt Shoes and Western Wear, Burrito Tyme Drive-up or at the door..
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By Valerie Kimble/New Mexico Tech