December 13, 2011
If not for blind luck and happenstance, I probably could easily have missed the entire swing-music revival of the ’90s. Actually, more than likely, with my being a longtime big-band jazz aficionado, we would have bumped into each other somewhere down the road, but to experience it as I did in its native habitat during its heyday was a one-in-a-million shot.
It started out when my friend Chris McLaughlin came into possession of three free tickets to a k.d. lang show out at Park West and offered one of them to me. Well, that was a no-brainer! Being a big fan of the quirky multi-octave Canadian song-belter, I was all in! Also committed, as it turned out, were looming thunderstorm and monsoon warnings for the hillside in question.
So, when promoters reacted to the forecast with a change of venue, we adapted and headed on down to Abravanel Hall in Salt Lake, arguably at the time the most acoustically pure concert hall in the state. Arriving way earlier than we needed, we opted to kill some time across the street at the Dead Goat Saloon, a favorite blues-oriented haunt where the evening’s plot would very much thicken.
When I caught sight of owner-proprietor-impresario John Paul Brophy heading over to our table, I had no idea that events were about to unfold that I would be recalling these nearly 20 years later. Bending over the table, he informed us in tones one would normally associate with the Second Coming that he had a not-to-miss retro-jazz combo out of Austin booked for later that evening and that we should, under no circumstances, let this one go by.
You don’t ignore John Paul when he gets that look in his eye, even to this day, long after the Dead Goat’s demise. Promising we’d be back directly following k.d. lang’s final encore, we slipped out the door. We got away easy. I thought he was going to ask for a blood oath.
So, following yet another brilliant performance by Ms. lang, we hustled back across the street to "the Goat." Obviously, Brophy had got the word out, as the stage area in back began filling up with the usual suspects. Longtime local music junkie Randy Montgomery arrived just before the band got underway.
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"8½ Souvenirs," as the group was called, was the most casually-hip ensemble I’d seen probably since stalking Miles Davis in L.A. back in the ’60s. Their modus operandi was to channel Django Reinhardt’s Quintette of the Hot Club of France in a most-rambunctious yet subtle musical fashion not a small instrumental order by any stretch.
They would become my favorite band of the ’90s. Readjusting my logistics even further, I followed them to their next set of gigs in Southern California. And it would be at the Blue Café in Long Beach where I would bump smack dab into the "neo-swing" explosion, which, I quickly got the feeling, was "neo" only to me.
The girls, seemingly just off-shift from the WWII Douglas Aircraft B-17 plant down the road, flaunted a "Rosie the Riveter" look replete with hairnets and bright red lipstick while the gents "Lindy-hopped" them around the dance floor in zoot suits and fedoras. The SoCal swing revival was firmly in bloom!
I would learn about the "swing-set grapevine" that would keep all the hipsters appraised as to which clubs would be hosting which bands on which nights around the southland. Other swing-revival groups such as the Royal Crown Revue, which kind of started it all, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, and the Squirrel Nut Zippers could also pack them in on a moments notice.
The movement spread all over the country, of course, as was proven on the banks of the Great Salt Lake a few months later when 8½ Souvenirs returned to Utah to open for The Brian Setzer Orchestra out at Saltair. The local swing-scene getups and overall Lindy-hop jitterbugging was very much the equal of that we had come upon in L.A.
Nationwide, however, the swing-revival band you’d hear the most buzz about back then was Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. By the end of the decade, they would share the Super Bowl XXXIII stage with Gloria Estefan, Stevie Wonder and 750 dancers. They flat-out got the joint a-jumpin’ down in Miami, if you recall.
Now, lo these many years later, I finally get a chance to see them in person when they bring their "A Swinging Christmas" show to the Eccles Center this Saturday evening, December 17, at 7:30 p.m.
Word has it that we’re in for a swinging musical evening, one that mixes BBVD’s older hits with selections from their recent Cab Calloway tribute album and rockin’ big-band arrangements from the American Christmas songbook. Obviously, in their hands, the swing revival lives! Go Daddy-O! Dig it!
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and an observer, participant, and chronicler of the Park City and Wasatch County social scenes for the past 40 years.