It Don't Mean a Thing...

...if it ain't got that swing. But is this dip into the past just a blip on the screen or a full-blown movement?

Tonight's Big Bad Voodoo Daddy concert is giving off a big bad voodoo stench. It's a sold-out show on a humid summer night and the air-conditioning at the Quest is apparently on the fritz. Naturally, no one in the club is wearing shorts. After all, this is a swing-dancing event, and while some of the guys might strip down to tees and suspenders, plenty of fellas prefer to keep their zoot suits on. The vintage duds serve the same purpose as the fat, heavy pants worn by young ravers: a sweat sacrifice to the fashion god.

But despite the thick air and cramped floor, scores of dancing couples do the Lindy Hop like there's no tomorrow--and as if Pearl Harbor never happened. Even between sets, the mostly white crowd tries out old Harlem moves from the '20s, elbows and feet flying precariously close to the drinks of their nondancing neighbors. Upstairs in the Garden Room, a man and woman fervently dance their way into a horizontal blur. As they begin to slow I recognize that one of them is a friend of mine who's been into swing dancing for about a year.

Ahead of the trend, the Hot Head Swing Band (previously the Strawdogs) are longtime favorites of the local swing set: (from left) Jay Mote, Steve Clarke, John "Frankie" French, Dana Thompson, Eric "Buc" Nelson, Morris Engel, Randy Venaas, Jimmy Kennedy
Ahead of the trend, the Hot Head Swing Band (previously the Strawdogs) are longtime favorites of the local swing set: (from left) Jay Mote, Steve Clarke, John "Frankie" French, Dana Thompson, Eric "Buc" Nelson, Morris Engel, Randy Venaas, Jimmy Kennedy

I suddenly realize that in the cultural millisecond it's taken her to memorize the steps she first learned during Miss Kitty's dance lessons at Lee's Liquor Lounge, "swinging" has grown from a once-a-week diversion for a small group of enthusiasts into a full-blown subcultural craze. Consider the Big Bad Voodoo Daddy spectacle, or simply flip through the club ads weighing down the newspaper you're currently holding. Something must be afoot when a Dinkytown sports bar such as Fowl Play features "swing nights" every Wednesday in direct competition with Lee's weekly institution--Miss Kitty's tutorials and the perennial kickabilly attraction Trailer Trash.

The Cities' tightest rhythm and blues outfit, the Senders, now bill themselves a "jump blues swing band" and currently hold down their own Wednesday gig at the porkaholic's paradise, Famous Dave's Bar & Grill. And Rat Packer with a pompadour Vic Volare has staked a claim on Tuesday nights at the Fine Line, where his Fabulous Lounge Orchestra packed 'em in even on Voodoo Daddy's big night. Dance lessons (often free) are held on a regular basis all over the Cities--on various nights at the Rendezvous Ballroom, Sunday's at Mario's Keller Bar, and periodic Thursdays at the UM's Whole Music Club.

Factor in those crazy, gymnastificatin' Gap TV spots, increasing play for swing dingers on alt-radio, and the fact that national jazzbo stars Royal Crown Revue are opening for the B-52's at Midway Stadium Tuesday, and you've got much more than a local trend on your hands.

But what exactly do you have on your hands--or heels, as the case may be? Swing has all the earmarks of a bona fide dance craze for adults, and the trend's popularity with relatively hip white people suggests a gnawing dissatisfaction with the '90s music experience. For years young people have shunned the anonymity of dance clubs or the stasis of most rock concerts in favor of ducking into the basement for some hardcore punk or relishing an outdoor rave. But why should youth get all the subculture? Swing's postcollegiate practitioners see it as a romantic and inevitably nostalgic riot of their own--a way for middle-class professional types to appropriate a culture whose creators are no longer around to object.

The trend incubated in Sweden for decades, gained popularity throughout Europe in the '80s, and exploded in London eight years ago out of the 100 Club, the historic venue that introduced the world to the Sex Pistols. And after Swingers brought Hollywood's underground swing scene (including Big Bad Voodoo Daddy) to the screen in 1996, the subculture spread across the states, presenting Americans with a decidedly nonrock concept of cool.

"I give the trend five years tops," says trumpeter/vocalist Jay Mote of the Hot Head Swing Band, favorites of the local swing set. "We may drop the 'Swing' and become 'The Hot Head Punk Band.' We just happen to love this music." Specializing in the kind of prewar jazz that wouldn't sound out of place in a Woody Allen movie, the band started out five years ago as the Strawdogs, a New Orleans-inspired Americana act led by keyboardist-singer John Eric Thiede. The band watched with bewilderment as its growing audience slowly morphed into a mass of expert swing dancers decked out in vintage gear. Last winter, though, Thiede and his bandmates split apart, agreeing to bury the Strawdogs name forever. The other 'Dogs were happy to lose their well-known moniker, but the wounds from the divorce still seem fresh.

On the day of my visit to rehearsal, the Hot Heads ask me if it's possible to write about them without mentioning Thiede, who has since gone on to form the Jack Buzzards. But escaping the shadow of their domineering former bandmate might not prove as difficult as they think. Not only have they added talented key-tinkler Jimmy Kennedy (of the Glenrustles), but the Hot Heads are now drawing more heavily than ever on the distinctive voices in their midst. Nearly everyone sings, and Thiede's cartoon-growler shtick is barely missed.

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