As I climbed the narrow, bumper sticker-laden staircase of Smith’s Olde Bar in Atlanta, Ga., I thought to myself how lucky and strange it was that I was there in the first place.
I’m usually well aware, in advance, of shows by my favorite groups that come to town. Not so this time. For years now, I’ve been an ardent fan of the hot jazz-Western swing group Hot Club of Cowtown. There’s no other band quite like them. Most Western swing groups do not perform the Great American Songbook standards, and most hot jazz groups do not perform Western music. The genres are so close in spirit that one would think this peanut-butter-and-jelly combination would have been tapped sooner, but it has taken the immense talent of the Hot Club’s members to bring them together.
I found out they were going to be playing in town the very day of the show, the same day my family was planning on seeing a popular comedian live. I tried to see if I could go down to Cowtown instead. Unfortunately, I found out that there was an eighteen-or-older age restriction, and I’m two months short of reaching that number.
I thought, most likely, that was the end of that. I decided to comment on Hot Club’s Facebook post about the show (I like bands to know people are reading and responding to their posts). I said “Man, I wish I could go but it’s 18+. Two months short here!”
Less than an hour later, I received a message on my phone. I turned it on, and my eyes suddenly got much wider when I saw who it was from: Elana James -- the group’s astoundingly great fiddler and vocalist -- had sent me a message! She said she could put me +1 on the band’s guest list so I could see the show. I was astonished. It was just another example of how great a thing the internet can be, and one more reason that James is one of the musical world’s best treasures.
The venue is one of those perfectly intimate places with a fantastic sound system that pop music lovers will never experience. Unlike the equally legendary Atlanta area venue Eddie’s Attic, the stage is unobstructed by tables, poles, barstools, and what-have-you that can make Eddie’s difficult. We were able to stand five feet from the stage without getting our ears blasted off, and that’s all you really need.
The opening group, the Jugtime Ragband, was very impressive. Their band biography states that they are “not jug band, ragtime, or Dixieland. It is an energetic amalgamation of all three immersed in an early New Orleans sound with a style that also incorporates a little blues, a bit of swing, and some old time gospel tones.” Lead singer Tray Dahl tore the place up with her tenor banjo and versatile vocal power. When I say “power,” I really mean it. Dahl evoked many of the growly blues mamas of scratchy 78s that will tear your playhouse down.
TJ Shirley played a deliciously bluesy trumpet, and proved himself to be a solid harmony singer and talented songwriter. There was a song they performed called something to the effect of “Ghost of Jefferson,” that sounded like an authentic “St. James Infirmary”-style folk-blues tune. I couldn’t believe it when I found out he wrote it.
Patrick Stacey (drums) and Scott McIntyre (upright bass) provided a monstrous rhythm section that catapulted classics like “Sing, Sing, Sing” into a rolicking swing frenzy.
About half an hour after the Jugtime Ragband’s ferocious set, the Hot Club of Cowtown took the stage to the much-anticipated sounds of Bob Wills’s classic “Ida Red.” The very song that Chuck Berry claimed he wrote his first hit “Maybelline” off of. This song set the stage for much of the show to come. Whit Smith (guiat, vocals) sang the verses and played his gorgeous Gibson L-5 guitar. Elana James (fiddle, vocals) sang the harmonies and sawed on the Devil’s Box. Jake Erwin (upright bass) sang on the three-part harmonies and slapped his bass as hard as if it was a particularly mischievous child.
The trio played an impressively diverse set that included classic Western swing tunes, their own compositions, jazz standards, folk tunes, and some audience requests.
Whit Smith’s guitar playing was astonishing. Bob Wills’s legendary guitarist Eldon Shamblin, the fabulous Charlie Christian, and Django Reinhardt himself would have all surely been proud. He stretched his hand across more frets than I realized was humanly possible. His warm, fat tone with big notes reminded me a lot of how Ernest Tubb’s guitarist Billy Byrd played. His vocals were fantastic as well. I detected plenty of Willie Nelson in his delivery.
Jake Erwin’s bass playing was so fast and intense, I had a hard time imagining how one could do what he did for an hour and a half. His solos were more rapid-fire than a tommy gun, with a lot more bite too! The average citizen might only expect such ferocity applied to an upright bass in a rockabilly group, but most rockabilly players would be as shocked as the next guy to have seen this display.
At the center (literally) of all this extraordinary talent stands what is arguably the highlight of this illustrious trio. Elana James is a breathtaking musician and a stupefying vocalist. When she sings Frank Loesser’s line “I’d love to get you... on a slow boat to China,” you couldn’t possibly say no. While Smith usually takes lead for the Western swing tunes, James’s specialty appears to be the great standards of the early 20th Century. Fans of this period of songwriting certainly know just how many brilliant singers have tackled their own versions of these classics over the years. I love all of these singers with a passion, and I’m very willing to say that James’s interpretations are so spectacular, in many cases I would listen to her version over the others. She has a way of singing that’s very stylishly her own -- without overbearing ornamentation -- and sounds very authentic. She puts so much weight on every word that you end up not only hearing more of the lyrics, but understanding them and feeling every emotion.
Her fiddle playing is simply by far the very best I have ever seen live, or have most likely ever heard. She played her version of the classic “Orange Blossom Special” at the end of the show, saying that she was going to perform it since it’s her father’s favorite. Anyone who has ever heard her play that song knows it’s not played solely for that reason. I found myself thinking that God might have made sure trains were invented just so He could hear her imitating one on the fiddle. I had no idea a human could produce such a mind-blowing song out of an instrument like that. I believe some of my brain cells actually spontaneously combusted from watching it. I don’t think our heads were designed to handle such august levels of playing.
It’s difficult for me to even begin to describe how incredible the Hot Club of Cowtown was in concert. It was by far one of the greatest shows I’ve ever seen. I was very aware of their prowess and versatile repertoire before seeing them, but seeing them in the flesh is the only way you can truly experience their brilliance. By about the second or third song they played, actual tears were welling up in my eyes, simply from how phenomenally well they were swingin’ it.
I’ve been listening to all forms of hot jazz and swing for many years and I’ve never seen or heard anything that’s made me feel like that. I brought my father to the show and he was clearly feeling the same way. When a song ended he said something to the effect of: “Everybody thinks when you get to Heaven there’ll be some enormous heavenly choir singing a Gregorian chant, but I think this is what will be playing as you walk through the gate.”
I couldn’t have said it any better.