REVIEW: Hot Club of Cowtown’s “Wild Kingdom” is Classic Retro-Swing


Set for Sept. 27th this 11th studio LP Wild Kingdom (Gold Strike Records) by Austin-based Western swing band Hot Club of Cowtown – is its first in 10-years. The 14-songs showcase all-new classic retro American Western swing. The USA gave us blues, jazz, ragtime, country — can’t forget Western swing. Remnants of the Big Band era.

While this doesn’t have big band swing’s penchant for big horns its style is a crossbreed: jazz & country. It hasn’t the intensity of Moving Hearts’ masterful Irish-hybrid swing of “No Time for Love,” which by the finale is in full-thrust swing with horns. But, nonetheless, the award-winning band’s feel is rich, rewarding & seldom steered into novelty land.

Violinist/vocalist Elana James wrote “My Candy,” & it sounds as if it came blissfully from the ’30s. Joe Kerr’s beautiful piano, Jake Erwin’s hefty standup bass, & Damien Llanes brushes on snare — all simple & clean.  The approach — similar to Manhattan Transfer, String Cheese Incident & Squirrel Nut Zippers. But Hot Club is closer to the traditional heart of the country than those groups. Their strength: a song like “Last Call,” – a Tom Waits’ type-ballad expressively played. I like the raw backup vocal of guitarist Whit Smith with Elana’s absorbing saloon voice. Joe Kerr’s piano tone is in sharp contrast to Elana’s violin.

More vaudevillian: “Caveman” could’ve been a novelty song but it’s not. The musicianship is tight with colorful guitar, violin, & piano solos. Driven with Llanes’ steady nonintrusive drums.

Elana’s “Near Mrs,” injects retro-swing gently & flaunts a Nanci Griffith style with a tone similar to the late Diane Izzo (“Venice”). Oliver Rajamani (tabla, percussion) adds adornments throughout the tracks. Whit Smith’s guitar has the cool influence of gypsy master Django Reinhardt, Les Paul & Tony Mattola. Elana’s violin’s a bit Stephane Grappelli-like, also reminds one of Scarlett Rivera.

Their jazz then leans into Bob Wills-territory & all together it’s a recipe like milk when mixed with chocolate pudding powder. Stirred slow over a low flame. These performers have the spirit of that time in their fingers & vocals.

Whit’s “Billy the Kid,” typical of a bygone era, weaves like a ghost. “Tall Tall Ship,” – good but Elana’s voice seems recorded flat. Their intention, maybe? Her violin soars nicely.

Elana’s voice on “Rodeo Blues,” is somewhat-like the sexy female 1920’s-30’s vocalist Lee Morse (“If You Want the Rainbow,” “A Million Me’s”). Lee’s “videos” are on YouTube.

“Ways of Escape,” — pianist Joe Kerr lays down exceptional notes while bass, drums & percussion all play in a nice “Take 5” type rhythm. Smart stuff.

Whit answered Elana’s ad in NY’s Village Voice. From there the duo was bound for Austin, TX. Those ads actually work.

“Loch Lomond,” is the sole misstep. A traditional Scottish song (1841) it’s just not a melody adaptable to jazz. It loses its folky edge. Redeemed: “High Upon the Mountain” is excellent. Radiates with Appalachian-fluidity & “Before the Time of Men,” a well-sung composition with a spooky haunting windy violin.

The deep Jake Erwin bass thump pounds vintage “How High the Moon.” The song itself has little else since the vocals are quick but not enthusiastic.

The 57-minute CD has diversity & Hot Club of Cowtown is always reliable, authentic & respective of the genre. Can’t ask for more:


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