Archive for November, 2008

Mirror on the wall, who’s the hot band in that hall?

November 11, 2008

I spent the summer of 1998 working for a pool retailer, as a member of the above-ground pool installation gang. Our job was to assemble pools at customers’ houses. There were three or four of us, plus our foreman, a grisly war veteran named Henry. I also tagged along on the occasional maintainence call, replacing filter cartridges, deploying vacuum-bots, and fishing live frogs out of strainers.

Every day, I made the 11-mile drive to and from work in the family Saturn. (Thanks for letting me use it, Parents!) My commute was accompanied by the local jazz station, run by NPR. Then during pledge week ("Only donations from listeners like you can keep us on the air….") I found myself rummaging for a cassette to jam into the tape deck.

And that’s how I discovered the Squirrel Nut Zippers, a band that has been my personal favorite ever since. Wrapped into the swing revival period of the late 90s, the Zippers were considered a one-hit wonder with their signature tune "Hell". Reviewers have squirmed trying to describe their sound, throwing a potluck of genres up: swing, hot jazz, roots, blues, dixieland, Americana, ragtime, klezmer, Latin, definitely retro. My favorite descriptor is "Thirties punk", music your grandparents made out to.

I was delighted to learn that, after seven years apart doing solo and side projects, the Zippers gang had reunited and was back on tour! What’s more, they were starting their ’08 tour right in my backyard of northern Virginia! The State Theater was their venue of choice, and it was right around the corner from the game store I frequent on Wednesday evenings.

Evelyn and I donned our best attempt at period attire, and went to the concert for a night of dancing. The opening band was Pistolera, a Spanish-language rock band from Brooklyn. Though not something you could dance to, they were definitely the best live band I’ve heard that included both an accordion AND a zither.

The opening band didn’t draw people to the dance floor, and Evelyn and I were hoping we wouldn’t be the only people on the dance floor, parading our amateur moves to the eyes of a disaffected crowd. But we stepped up anyway. And that’s when the pros arrived… dozens of dancing couples. Two by two the filed in through the front door, each with a duffel bag full of dancing shoes. These people were serious, representing dance classes and troupes from around the DC area, all here to dance to a top-notch live swing band. With such talent surrounding us, I began to feel outclassed.

The curtain went up, and there they were, my beloved Zippers. They launched right into "Club Limbo", and Evelyn and I swirled and twirled together, mixed right in with all the seasoned dancers. The songs I knew by heart played one by one, each with the playful improv one expects from a jam band. The music video for "Ghost of Stephen Foster" was displayed while the musicians performed; I was impressed that they could perform the tune even while stooped down to the stage planks.

The music stopped, the musicians left, and the crowd stood for applause, demanding an encore with pounding feet, clapping hands, and hollers and whistles. The band returned. Katherine launched them into a slow arching rock song, the last genre I expected this band to play. All the swing dancers stood paralyzed, unsure how to dance to contemporary rock backbeats. The song finished, and Kate apologized with "Sorry about that… I had to get that out of my system." They launched right back into swingin’ hot jazz, and the party picked up where it left off.

An hour and a half later, after conga lines, curtain calls, and more applause, it was over. They had worn out most of the dancers, including Evelyn and I. With sore feet, we sat ringside and enjoyed the remainder of the show. I didn’t want it to end, but I still had a great evening. Hopefully this is the start of their second wind as a band, leading to more albums and tours. I’ll be waiting for their next show, and I hope they bring some new material next time. If you, like me, think pop music peaked in 1940 and has been running downhill ever since, you owe it to yourself to hear this band live while you still can.

Nifty Wikipedia Thing: Victorian lifesaving teen Grace Darling

Movies I’ve Seen:

Easy Virtue (1928) ~ Hitchcock’s last silent film is more drama than suspense, but it shows the hand of a promising master filmmaker early in his career.

What I’m Reading:

"Atlas Shrugged" by Ayn Rand (73.5%)