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?

"We were all saving our songs, because we were quashed in the Strawdogs," says Dana Thompson, the band's firecracker of a front woman, whose high-range singing voice can best be described as soulfully Betty Boopish. "Now we're all just exploding like popcorn." A Billie Holiday fanatic since her high-school days, Thompson says the kind of music the Hot Heads play live is the same music that band members listen to at home. Though their recently self-released debut CD, Bootleg, is taken from a bracing live set of covers, ranging from Fats Waller to Count Basie, the ensemble has already amassed enough original material for a follow-up disc due later this year. But given the Hot Heads' audience, it's remarkable how many of their originals and covers aren't strictly tailored for the swing crowd.

"Most of what's called 'swing' is a jump blues, Louie Jordan kind of thing," says Mote, referring to the R&B legend whose blustery voice and sax playing typified pre-Elvis rock 'n' roll. "But we're more into the '20s and '30s style. It's a swing beat, and you can dance to it. But a lot of what we're coming up with doesn't necessarily fit under the 'swing' label." As evidence, Thompson cites one reaction to a recent gig: "We had a woman get super pissed at us the other night because we were playing too fast," she says.

But the band's unlikeliest new audience probably isn't interested in rehashing old steps anyway. Members of the over-70 set have approached the group after their energetic shows to thank them for tunes they haven't heard in decades. "Doing this music has actually brought me closer to my father," says saxophonist Steve Clarke, a relative newcomer to the group who joined the Strawdogs two years ago after playing in such soul bands as the Lights Out Committee. Clarke's dad is in his 70s. "I'll call him up and I'll go, 'Dad, you got any Jimmie Lunceford?' And he goes, 'Oh yeah.' He's retired now, and he's got this tremendous collection of 78s, so he gets a big kick out of making these compilation tapes and sending them to me."

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

Hot Head's versatility points to the fact that this "swing" thing is fundamentally a dance craze, one that can adapt old steps from the '20s, '30s, and '40s to a variety of musical genres, provided the appropriated music swings. As a result, local dancers have embraced everything from the rockabilly of the Vibro Champs to the lounge lizardry of Vic Volare, whose rhythm tracks accommodate everything from the rumba to the fox-trot. And when western swing revivalists BR5-49 turned up in town, the swing kids showed up in droves.

Though all these acts qualify as "retro," it's easy to forget that big-band jazz was once America's popular music and set the rhythm for decades to come. When swing was buried by bop in the '50s, the "swing" beat was kept alive through R&B and the hillbilly music that became rock 'n' roll. The rhythm virtually disappeared when Motown, garage rock, and James Brown introduced various brand new bags in the '60s. But the fact that nothing on the radio really "swings" except the white-faced jump blues of Voodoo Daddy or the kitschy ragtime of the Squirrel Nut Zippers doesn't mean an old beat--and old moves--can't be put to the service of new music.

To understand why social partner dancing (including salsa) has enjoyed a revival that outpaces enthusiasm for the music, take a second look at Swingers. Back before anyone would have considered it the Urban Cowboy of '90s swing dancing, the film used the moves as a metaphor for romantic assertiveness. It poked loving fun at its twentysomething male suavesters, their acquired hip-hop slang, early-'60s suits, and endless movie references. But having lead swinger Jon Favreau win over Heather Graham's bar girl on the dance floor was more than mere faddish exploitation.

Swing dancing forces just the kind of forwardness and finesse that turns unassuming yuppies into potential "big daddies" and "beautiful babies." Back before Chubby Checker's "Twist" made contact dancing permanently uncool for up-tempo music, the phrase "May I have this dance?" meant a fleeting chance for a three-minute relationship. "Swinging," with its double entendre that's never quite lost on dancers, revives old protocols that condoned the touching of strangers and made dancers vulnerable in their partners' arms.

"A lot of these people are gonna trade this in for something else down the line," my friend admits after the Big Bad Voodoo Daddy concert. "But if you're a guy, the sexiest thing you can do right now is learn to dance."

The Hot Head Swing Band performs Saturday, July 18, at Lee's Liquor Lounge; call 338-9491.

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