Hot Club of Cowtown and their western swing
Whit Smith, Jake Erwin, Elana James and Damien Llanes inspired by Sinatra, Stéphane Grappelli and Led Zeppelin
by Clive Davis
We’re all basically just music nerds,” says Whit Smith with an apologetic smile. As if to prove the point, he and his colleagues begin to list the musicians who would be their desert-island choices. A hardcore jazzer, Smith opts for Coleman Hawkins, early Nat King Cole and Louis Armstrong’s recordings from the late 1920s. He loves Frank Sinatra, too. The bassist, Jake Erwin, chips in with the Texan crossover legend, Bob Wills. The singer and violinist Elana James — somewhat nervous about being thought too commercial — opts for Paul Simon as well as Stéphane Grappelli. And Damien Llanes, the drummer who has temporarily become a fourth member of the line-up, chooses the unorthodox trinity of Iggy Pop, Led Zeppelin and Marvin Gaye.
In other words, categories and labels mean little to Hot Club of Cowtown. One of the drawbacks of being members of the world’s most engaging “western swing” band is that people who have not heard the group’s work tend to assume it must be painfully esoteric. After all, for better or worse, the very mention of the word “jazz” tends to make many people’s eyes glaze over. Much the same is true of country music. Given that the Hot Club’s repertoire is based on a fusion of the values of vintage jazz and the Grand Ole Opry, it might seem that their fan base is, by its nature, hopelessly limited. Once you hear the group in action, however, all those worries instantly become irrelevant. Their shows are all about energy and joie de vivre.
A song that is 70 years old can still lift the spirits of a 17-year-old if it is played with enough spirit.
“There’s a certain language we stay away from as much as possible when we talk about what we do,” Smith says as he and the rest of the band sit in the cramped and decidedly unglamorous dressing room at Dingwalls, in Camden, north London. “If we tell people we play western swing and they aren’t familiar with the term, they may never come along to our show, because they might imagine it’s going to be a modern country thing, or they might associate it with a bad experience they had at some western theme park.
“Besides, our influences are not entirely obvious. It’s like with Led Zeppelin, for example: they were listening to, what, skiffle and Moroccan music, but you wouldn’t put them in a skiffle festival or a Moroccan festival. I like to think we can adapt different influences and be authentic at the same time, so that people who like jazz can say, ‘I don’t know what they’re doing now, but that was good jazz they were playing.’”
Favourites of Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan — who invited them to join them on the road — the Hot Club have certainly not been an overnight success story. A full decade and a half has passed since James, a classically trained violinist who was searching for a new artistic direction, placed an ad in the music section of The Village Voice. Enter Smith, a passionate jazznik, who introduced James to the wonders of the effervescent, improvised music created more than half a century earlier by Django Reinhardt and Grappelli in their celebrated Quintette du Hot Club de France.
A year went by before the duo even played their first gig — at a wedding. Erwin arrived on the scene a little later. After settling in Austin, Texas, home to a cosmopolitan music scene, the young adventurers dug deeper into the roots of western swing, the devil-may-care style that combined the rigour of jazz with the down-home sentiment of country and the earthiness of the blues.
The Hot Club released their debut album a decade ago, but it is as a live act that they have made the greatest impact. Their audiences are a curious bunch, a sprinkling of jazz buffs, Hank Williams devotees and people who may have caught them jamming on Jools Holland’s television show.
One of the joys of the group is that you never quite know which direction the performers will pursue next. One of their most distinctive recordings was a melancholy back-porch cover of that quintessential Aerosmith rock anthem Chip Away the Stone. Smith and James concede that they are often at loggerheads over which way to jump. The Aerosmith number, for instance, seldom gets an airing on stage, because Smith prefers jazzier, more traditional fare.
As James puts it, with a meaningful glance towards her colleague: “We don’t play it live, unfortunately, except when it’s requested. But I think music ought to be kind of like a garden. Most of what you’re growing there can be green, but a couple of other colours are what makes it interesting to look at. I often feel like I’m the one who wants to try a number that’s not strictly in the idiom that the band is known for. I think it’s a way of introducing ourselves to people who aren’t familiar with this kind of music.”
With James pulling in one direction, and Smith tugging the opposite way, Erwin seems to be used to being in the middle. “He’s got a bruise on both eyes,” quips Smith. The new album, Wishful Thinking, is one of their most polished efforts so far. But to catch the Hot Club at full temperature, you really need to see the group in the flesh.
The album Wishful Thinking is released on the Proper label. For details of the Hot Club’s UK tour, visit hotclubofcowtown.com