New York Times Live Review: January 7, 2011January 8th, 2011 at 2:11pm
Thursday night, in the basement of Hill Country Barbecue Market, where pork ribs and slices of brisket are eaten off slick butcher paper and the napkins are rolls of paper towels, the smell of Texas was almost as pungent as the sound.
“It certainly smelled like Austin when we walked in the door tonight,” said Elana James, fiddler for Hot Club of Cowtown, the revivalists of hot jazz, western swing and, in the case of at least one member, tight and slick pompadours.
But thanks to an arsenal full of technique and joy, drawing attention from the nose to the ear proved easy for this group, composed of Ms. James, Whit Smith on guitar and Jake Erwin on upright bass and, presumably, Brylcreem.
Individually, they’re all tremendous players, though as singers, they’re far less forceful. (Ms. James and Mr. Smith split lead vocal duties.) Nevertheless, Hot Club of Cowtown knows every workaround, every gambit, every way to patch its sound whole.
They play loose with tempos, speeding and slowing both the songs and the playing inside them. They tweak the dynamics, putting their best sounds forward at any given moment: on a cover of a song by Dorado Schmitt, the French Gypsy guitar player, Mr. Smith played snarling, angsty guitar filigrees until Ms. James stepped up and snatched the song with easy swagger.
There’s the virtuosic fiddling of Ms. James — she’s played with Bob Dylan’s band — and the aerobic workout that is Mr. Erwin’s bass playing. And there’s the band’s elemental warmth. Even a melancholy number described by Mr. Smith as “if Kurt Weill had been born in West Texas” was deeply affable.
Several songs were drawn from the band’s new album, “What Makes Bob Holler” (Proper American), to be released next month and consisting wholly of interpretations of songs by the western swing pioneers Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. Recorded in single takes and modestly produced, it’s one of the most consistent Cowtown albums, a showcase for its vibrant and sometimes risky faithfulness to the genre.
A brief intermission followed the group’s first set, after which it returned for a second, less ambitious one, a lighthearted saunter that relied less on skill and more on collective, and possibly slightly soused, good cheer in the room. Mr. Smith expressed anxiety — genially, of course — on Wills’s “She’s Killing Me.” Ms. James sang a bittersweet song she’d written about her high school reunion. Mr. Smith winked his way through “Roly Poly,” which was popularized by Wills, and verged on lounge shtick during the standard “Cheek to Cheek.”
On a cover of Tom Waits’s “Long Way Home,” the group tried its most complex three-part harmony, though it was overly tentative, as if the band members weren’t sure where to place all the voices at once.
But just before the end of the night, during a cover of the Light Crust Doughboys’ western swing chestnut “Pussy Pussy Pussy,” Cowtown roared back. Mr. Smith and Mr. Erwin kept prodding Ms. James: “Ma’am, is this your cat?” It wasn’t, she proclaimed, as she teasingly coaxed naughty meows from her fiddle.
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