One of the downsides of being a music reviewer is that after attending two or three concerts a week for months on end, you can get a bit jaded about each new show. It’s not that the performances become less enjoyable, it’s just that after seeing so many shows — almost all of them with the same classic, static format of the performers standing on stage while the audience sits and applauds politely at a distance — you lose the ability to recall the raw excitement of your first concert, when it was all so new, transcendent and mind-blowing.
I attended my first concert with my family as a 12-year-old, at the Arizona State Fair in the early 1970s. I saw José Feliciano play “Come On Baby Light My Fire” and a bunch of other covers at the cavernous, acoustically dreadful Phoenix Memorial Coliseum. Though it wasn’t a particularly groundbreaking show (to say the least), it opened up a whole new world for me — live music! — that I’ve continued to relish to this day.
But like I said, it’s rare these days that a show engenders the sheer excitement and “wow” factor of that initial encounter with the concert world so long ago.
I didn’t go into the Squirrel Nut Zippers’ show at the Ardmore music Hall on Thursday, April 25, expecting a transformative experience — much less anything even close to that first dazzling taste of live music. If anything, I expected the Zippers to provide a mildly enjoyable evening of retro, swinging, New Orleans- inflected dance music along the lines of what I’d experienced (and loved) when I first heard their albums Hot and Perennial Favorites in the late ‘90s.
Suffice to say, Jimbo Mathis and company quickly and completely restored that early thrill of hearing live music played by virtuoso musicians. Even better: they tore down that invisible wall between the musicians and audience that is such a staple of the old, static concert set-up, literally getting everyone involved in the performance. (Translation: No wallflowers allowed!)
What made this show so vivid and delightful? One thing that jumped out to everyone I spoke with after the show — professional musicians and casual fans alike — was the incredible level of showmanship Mathus and company provided. From the moment their N’awlins style drum line snaked its way on stage, with Jimbo shouting out the spoken lyrics to “Conglomeration of Curios” via a megaphone like a giddy carnival barker / snakeoil salesman, to their equally energetic exit 18 songs and one hotter-than-hell encore later, the Zippers thrilled the packed Ardmore Music Hall with a nonstop series of costume changes, Mardi Gras-inspired stage props, bad jokes, and impossibly demanding dance moves. The latter included (incredibly) Tamara Nicolai’s swinging her upright bass above her head in time to the beat and “Dr. Sick” doing some acrobatic high-stepping while coaxing boiling-hot jazz riffs from his fiddle.
It was also impossible not to by awed by the virtuosic level of playing and singing the Zippers delivered. Whether it was vocalist Cella Blue extending her expressive, at times Bettie Boop-like swoops and hollers to their near-breaking points, or Jimbo Mathus laying down nimble ragtime jazz-meets-Delta-blues banjo and guitar solos, the uber-talented horn section of Dave Boswell (trumpet), Steve Suter (trombone) and Henry Westmoreland (sax) topping and re-topping themselves with their endlessly creative horn solos, or the tight rhythm section of Nicolai on bass and Neilson Bernard III effortlessly switching between Big Band, New Orleans jazz, and Latin/Carribean rhythms — or, to top it all off, Dr. Sick launching his fiddle and saw (!!!) solos toward the stratosphere — the extravagantly bravura playing was constant and breathtaking.
My favorite moments (and there were many) included:
• Mathus in his sparkling red suit coat, purplish pants and U.S. flag-embossed socks laying down some swinging banjo chords during “Got My Own Thing Now”;
• Leslie Martin’s fabulous piano solo, followed by Boswell’s equally amazing trumpet solo, during “Evening at Lafitte’s”;
• Dr. Sick’s crazy song introductions — “And now I will give you AUDIO PINK EYE!” — and bad doctor jokes, interspersed with his mind-bending fiddle solos;
• Saxophonist Henry Westmoreland’s polished vocal contributions on several numbers;
• Mathus’ comedic schtick, in the midst of “Suits Are Picking Up the Bill,” during which he laid down on the floor with his head against a monitor, only to suddenly leap up — as though shocked back to life by an electric current — and hop onto the side of Nicolai’s bopping bass, riding it in standing side- saddle style;
• Cella Blue’s roof-raising vocals during “Use What Mama Gave You,” as well as her beautifully melancholic performance during “Fade,” alternated with lovely trumpet and trombone solos by Suter and Boswell;
• The outrageous costumes and props, including Mathus’ twisted voodoo cane and outsized papier maché skull head, and Ms. Blue’s multiple garment changes, including (during the lead-in to “Hell”) her transformation from a southern belle into a punk-goth farm girl, complete with large black commando boots and a colorful, flower-printed summer dress;
• and finally, the unexpected visual delight provided by the black and white, Betty Boop-style animated cartoon projected above the stage during the band’s big finale performance of “Ghost of Stephen Foster.”
Of course the audience ate up the Zippers’ renditions of their early big hits, which included the five tunes referenced above, along with “Put A Lid On It” and “Bad Businessman” from Hot. But to my taste, the newer songs held a special intrigue and, being delivered with such gusto, provided double the pleasure via their seemingly endless layers of surprise.
The changes in the Zippers’ overall sound are subtle, but to my ears the new album, Beasts of Burgundy (with the stress falling on the second syllable of that last word, a la the locals’ pronuciation of the street name in New Orleans) embraces a darker, Dr. John-informed, gris-gri meets voodoo vibe. Which is not to say the songs are any less fun, just that Mathus and Co.’s lyrical concerns have gotten richer, deeper and (in a way) more universal by steeping themselves even further in the New Orleans gumbo.
To provide a visual metaphor: the new stuff feels more like an intimate street- carnival on a poorly lit and slightly ominous backstreet, and less like a well- mannered (though high-spirited), big band dancehall performance. While the new tunes are for the most part just as lively and danceable as the older ones, they have a creepier edge to them along with a correspondingly deeper resonance, I find.
Good examples of this new flavoring can be found in such tunes as “Karnival Joe (From Kokomo)” — which the Zippers opened the show with — the saucy “Rusty Trombone,” the suitably exotic “West of Zanzibar,” the title track, and their closing drumline exit tune “Hey Shango.”
I also enjoyed Jimbo’s performance of “You Are Like A Song” from his recent solo album Incinerator, which added a bit of a mournful country twang to the already tasty musical stew.
Ultimately, it didn’t matter whether your entry point was the “old,” classic Zippers tunes or the newer stuff. It’s all part of the big, delicious, delightful, and dramatically-presented smorgasbord that is the SNZs. Thank the gods for the new/continuing life this twice-reassembled ensemble is currently enjoying: I for one can’t wait to hear how they further develop their tasty musical melange.
The local opening band, Mighty Joe Castro and the Gravamen, was good fun too, though theirs was a more traditional rockabilly / early 50s pop-rock approach. Propelled by frontman Castro’s animated gestures — which included jumps, head-jerks, hand-claps and broad swings of his arms — they did a fine job of energizing the crowd and coaxing the dancers out into the light of the stagefront. It was no big task from there for the Zippers to get the crowd bopping, giggling and clapping along for the duration. Those dancers who managed to keep it up to the show’s end — like the tireless woman in the balcony area who I overheard proclaiming to her friends afterwards, “I’m still bouncing with excitement!” — must’ve gotten one hell of a workout.
Squirrel Nut Zippers tour dates, videos, recordings and merchandise can be found at: http://www.snzippers.com
Americana Highways editor Melissa Clarke’s recent interview with Jimbo Mathus can be found at: Interview: Jimbo Mathus on How Life is an Incinerator;
Americana Highways’ review of Jimbo Mathus’ Incinerator can be found at: REVIEW: Jimbo Mathus Explores the Roots of Country on Incinerator; and the Squirrel Nut Zippers album, here: REVIEW: Squirrel Nut Zippers’ “Beasts of Burgundy” is Melting Pot of Frolicking Influences
More info on Joe Castro and the Gravamen can be found at: https://thegravamen.mightyjoecastro.com