Swing Backward, Drone Ahead

The Future's Imperfect and the Past Is Always Here

Grim tales of the Twin Cities swing scene

As the premillennial trend toward 20th-century nostalgia spirals backward, it seems that the music, style, and dance of white postwar America has become the past of choice for the '90s hipoisie. Swing is everywhere, and it's not going to blow over soon. Sure, the fad might get driven into the ground by Subway ads and voodoo yuppies, and the lyric "Baby, baby, it looks like it's gonna hail," may one day resonate as "Baby, baby, it looks like it's goin' to hell." But swing's true believers will not be swayed.

Singer-songwriter Mason Jennings does the hand jive
Singer-songwriter Mason Jennings does the hand jive

Last time swing-centric DJ Dave Wolfe cued Brian Setzer's aforementioned remake of the Louis Prima 1956 jump-blues standard ("Jump, Jive, an' Wail") at Mario's Keller Bar, he cut it off apologetically within moments amid a chorus of groans from the dance floor. You see, when an entire segment of a generation learns a complex dance, they're not going to quit next week just because it's "in." Nor are they going to get excited when its signature cuts are being used to sell khakis.

As of this writing, a loosely bound local swing cult jumps from one nightclub to another on a route that sees a new stop on virtually every night of the week. Wherever they go, KLBB (1400 AM, a.k.a. "Club 14") is wisely there to co-opt the retrolution. Undoubtedly the core of the scene can be found at Mario's, the Northeast basement bar where Wolfe and dance instructor Cindy Geiger join up every Sunday. (In fact, Mario's is so vital a part of the swing scene that it almost hurts to publicize it, but attendance has dipped with the temperature, so what the heck...) Wolfe has been trying to forge a rockabilly-swing revolt in the Cities much longer than the Gap has; his encyclopedic knowledge and discerning taste is also prevalent in his 'billy band the Vibro Champs. The genuinely old-school atmosphere at Mario's is a perfect backdrop for stepping into the past. Unfortunately, that does it for the DJ-mediated segment of the swing shift. For the rest of the swinger's week, the focus is primarily on live bands. And contrary to Wolfe's smart mix of swing, jump blues, and rockabilly, easier listening prevails on weeknights. On Mondays at Lee's, the likable Ginger diVoce and her modest jazz trio, the Cabana Boys, offer only a few surprises, but damned if diVoce's vibrato isn't the best I've heard since Rita Hayworth's in Gilda. On Tuesdays, Vic Volare and the aptly dubbed Volare Lounge Orchestra hit the Fine Line with a vibes-based routine that's easily the most clever and eclectic of the week, even it does maintain a somewhat dicey relationship with the dance floor.

I wish as much could be said for the Quest's Friday night house band, whose singer, Tony DiMarco, is but one more variation on the countless Sinatra simulations you'll hear every 10 minutes on KLBB. The Quest recently moved its swing night from Wednesdays to Fridays, and while the club's atmosphere is regal, the cover has doubled to a laughable 10 clams. Forget it.

After all, there are plenty of other options: Trailer Trash still holds down its eternal residency at Lee's on Wednesdays, while bands like the Vibro Champs or newcomers A Stockcar Named Desire play at Mario's every Thursday.

Hot Head Swing Band may be the best of the bunch. Their November 20 CD-release party, where the band re-christened itself the Hotheads, doubled as a fete for KLBB's own compilation CD, Welcome to Swingland. So, in the final analysis, if swing is a "fad" (and really, who needs those messy ol' movementsanymore?), many more celebrated local "trends" of the past have boasted much smaller, less loyal audiences and infrastructures.

Mary's Place: "Popular Creeps," 7 p.m. every Sunday at the Bryant-Lake Bowl Cabaret Theater

On the air, Zone 105's Mary Lucia argues strenuously for attending her live-on-location, performance-based local music showcase, "Popular Creeps": It's free, all-ages, early, and mercifully brief. "And you can always tape The X-Files," she recently pointed out. Moreover, "Creeps" is a low-pressure opportunity to see a band prove (or embarrass) itself live on the air.

As a radio amateur who has produced a similar program, I've been impressed by the cool candor with which Lucia can sit onstage and trade quips with the band of the week. She has maintained the trademark interviewing style she deployed back in her REV 105 days, which includes a steadfast refusal to ask a band direct questions about their music--probably a good strategy in some cases.

And the music? The intimate theater space is conducive to the kind of acoustic singer-songwriter types Lucia seems to favor: Mason Jennings, a brilliant adult-contemporary weirdo, appeared on November 8th; lyrical whiz Mike Merz played the next week. Lucia's tastes run to the traditional, even conservative, side, and a wider stylistic sweep would be nice. Still, her attempt at creating an authentically live atmosphere is all too rare on commercial radio. Hmmm, hard to believe there were rumors last spring that the Zone had considered axing the show.

Tomorrow Never Knows: "Future Perfect 6," November 14 at Intermedia Arts

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