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Cowtown is Hot This Time of Year
by Nathan Orme
Sep 02, 2009 | 549 views | 0 0 comments | 4 4 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Courtesy photo -
The Hot Club of Cowtown, a jazz/western swing trio based in Texas, will perform a show tonight at 7 p.m. on the Rib Cook-Off main stage at 10th Street and Victorian Avenue in downtown Sparks.
Courtesy photo - The Hot Club of Cowtown, a jazz/western swing trio based in Texas, will perform a show tonight at 7 p.m. on the Rib Cook-Off main stage at 10th Street and Victorian Avenue in downtown Sparks.
When listening to the music of the Hot Club of Cowtown, you will likely ask yourself, “Where have I heard this before?”

That’s probably because the style is well known but not easy to find. It is so typically American that not many Americans listen to it.

“Our biggest impediment is to convey what it is because it sounds antiquated,” Hot Club vocalist and fiddler Elana James said by telephone on Tuesday. “It has its roots in the 1930s. ... It’s like music featured in a Woody Allen movie.”

The Texas-based trio will swing west to play at the Best in the West Nugget Rib Cook-Off today before heading off for a tour of the East Coast.

“Swing west” has a double meaning for this band, which formed in New York 10 years ago and consists of James, Whit Smith (guitar and vocals) and Jake Erwin (upright bass). Not only will they travel out of their way to play in Sparks, but their music is also decidedly grounded in western swing, infused with hot jazz and Texas sounds. As James alluded to, the first track off their recently released album, “Wishful Thinking,” does conjure up images of the opening credits of any number of films by Woody Allen, who himself is an accomplished clarinetist. The album, released Aug. 18, is the group’s first effort after a three-year break, during which the three musicians did individual projects and “got more musical inspiration,” James said. For James, a classically trained violinist, that included touring with the Squirrel Nut Zippers, a band from North Carolina that is cut from the same cloth as Hot Club, as well as with Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson. In fact, James was the first dedicated female instrumentalist to tour with Dylan’s band in more than 30 years, according to the group’s press information.

The first song on “Wishful Thinking” to feature James’ gentle voice and fiddle playing is the second track, “Reunion,” which she also wrote. The verses have a haunting melody during which James sings softly about the old classmates a woman sees at her high school reunion, while the chorus bursts out with a grand, sweeping feeling that suggests the woman’s emotions swirling out of control as everyone gives out phony congratulations.

James’ energetic fiddle playing is a constant strength on the album and lends to her description of Hot Club’s recordings as “very happy music.” Besides sounding happy, the tunes on “Wishful Thinking” are very polished, a testament to the talent of the group members. Exposing some of the down and dirty Texas influence, James described the group’s professionalism this way: “It’s not a bunch of slopped together bullshit by people wanking around.”

As historically happens with many American jazz musicians, the Hot Club of Cowtown has found a strong overseas following. They have played in Australia and the United Kingdom and toured for the U.S. State Department. James said the appeal for foreign audiences is that they bring a piece of the States in their sound.

“There’s something so quintessentially American (about our style of music).” James said. “I think for people not in the United States it typifies something American.”

Songs like “The Long Way Home” suggest a dusty back road and a porch swing. Also, the cover of the Hoagy Carmichael standard “Georgia” and the Gershwin brothers’ “Someone to Watch Over Me” are all lathered in Americana. Finally, if a hoedown and a speakeasy got together and had a baby, you’d get the 10th cut on the new album, “The Magic Violin,” which rumbles to a close thanks to Erwin’s bass and drums by Damien Llanes, the first time Hot Club has used a drummer on a recording.

James mentioned that the group’s new album was already streaming online before its release date. No matter, though, since hearing the Hot Club of Cowtown on a record is like smelling apple pie on a window sill: It just makes you want the real thing.

“No one will ever be able to download a live show,” she said. “For this band it’s our biggest strength.”

Catch the Hot Club of Cowtown tonight at 7:30 p.m. on the main concert stage at Victorian Avenue and 10th Street. The show is free. For more on the Hot Club of Cowtown. go to
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