Swing Shift

Is swing swung? Has jungle been tamed?

Fine Line Music Cafe, Tuesday, August 24, 10:25 p.m.

WITH ALL DUE respect to swingdom, I expected Vic Volare's CD-release party and final Fine Line house gig to be Deadsville, baby. But by the time I arrive, the downtown Minneapolis MOR joint is jumpin', jivin', and you-know-whatin' for Volare's last Tuesday. Everywhere, postcollegiate Beautiful People twirl into a blur of high heels and wingtips, with frenzied couples hopping to the Volare Lounge Orchestra's ol' school lounge lizardry like bunnies on a frying pan. The music sounds authentic enough--even the Volare-penned originals could soundtrack your grandparents' 60th class reunion. And while it's rumored that swing nights are in decline because swing nighters don't drink enough, I see as many gin and tonics as skinny ties and wife-beaters.

I don't get it. Local swing-dance-lesson pioneers Miss Kitty and Raven are about to hang up their cha-cha heels after 217 consecutive Wednesday nights at Lee's Liquor Lounge (101 Glenwood Ave. N., Minneapolis). The Gap has burnt the negatives of those damn commercials, and KS95 (95.3 FM) even stopped playing Brian Setzer. Hasn't swing gone into sudden-death overtime on the 15-minute fame clock?

Not so, says Volare, who phones me from his presumably swinging pad a few nights after the show. "Is swing dead? No, it's not dead. Is it going to die? No, it's not going to die," he says. "Look at guys like James Brown or Neil Diamond. They're not as visible as they were years ago, but they're still huge." While I refrain from asking what either have to do with the swing scene, Volare explains that he opted out of his Tuesday-night Fine Line (318 First Ave. N., Minneapolis) residency merely to make his performances more "special." He points out that while swing nights aren't as popular as they were a year ago, they're far more hopping than two years before that. Swing has established itself as a scene, says the crooner, one that's still about bringing all different types of people together into its close-knit kind of family.

Volare's colleague Nate Dungan, Lee's booking czar and a member of house band Trailer Trash, tells a slightly different story. He says swing's demise coincided with the aforementioned Gap ad. "When something makes it to the malls," Dungan says, "it's done." Crediting Volare and others, however, Dungan adds the crucial, if optimistic, distinction that "the swing fad may be dead, but music that swings will always be in fashion." Whether or not you take comfort in the aphorism, Volare's shtick indeed inspires the naive exuberance of a virgin wedding reception, with well-kept guys and dolls mingling and plunging into the packed dance floor with that carefree air of the nonironic. Missing are the usual downtown night-owl fixtures of exhibitionist single women, their horny predators, and the head-sized fruit drinks they share.

 

Café Fusion, Wednesday, September 1, 9:50 p.m.

OF COURSE, THE rise and crest of drum 'n' bass has followed a slightly different arc than neo-swing. For one thing, the London-bred, dub-influenced dance music now has a local venue to prop the style up as its moment wanes. Upon entering Café Fusion (1526 E. Lake St., Minneapolis), I immediately notice the shop's bigness. The spacious storefront java joint on the corner of Bloomington and Lake has high ceilings, large Formica tables, plenty of potted plants, and a group of teenagers in pants so large the Blair Witch sequel could be filmed inside of them. Like the Fine Line's fashion-plate cupboard, this place is Subgenre Central: home to a clique united by love of specific styles, specific beverages, and just as specific listening material. The difference is that while even your mom's friends could conceivably don a pair of pedal pushers and do the Lindy hop on their kitchen tiles, these kids don't plan on reviving--or crossing over into--anything.

I approach the surprisingly nondescript gentleman behind the counter, whom I recognize as an old schoolmate from Augsburg College. It turns out Paul Allen doesn't just make lattes and spin the ambient house music here, he owns the place, and doesn't hesitate to recount the tale of how this all-ages urban-dance oasis in south Minneapolis came to be. As a studio arts major at Augsburg in the mid-Nineties, Allen quickly got sidetracked from pursuing graduate studies seriously. "I was going to these raves and seeing all this amazing multimedia artwork," he says. "I couldn't imagine sitting in a room and just painting after that." So he hooked up with the Jungle Vibe Collective, a multiracial ensemble of underground DJs and MCs, whose spate of mid-Nineties raves is still the stuff of legend. From their smoke-machine cloud, the JVC crew blended everything from London jungle to deep-South bounce in an amalgam all their own.

Allen says he continued playing the DJ circuit across the Midwest, taking Kinko's and phone-bank jobs to make rent. But the café is a product of his wish to share his extensive (and obscure) record collection with people who might appreciate it more than his downstairs neighbors. After selling me a soda, he steps behind the turntables, and soon the aforementioned tarp-pants posse begin to hurl their pierced adolescent bodies around the room with a fervor usually confined to a charismatic church. That there's little in the way of a dance floor stops no one; chairs and tables are pushed aside to make room. But as the jump 'n' jivers--I mean drum 'n' bassists--pump the sugar and caffeine out of their oily pores, I once again wonder whether this slice of nightlife represents a first breath or a last gasp. I mean, didn't jungle go the way of tiny backpacks and OD'ing on GHB? As with the swingers, it's best not to interrupt dancers with these questions. Why ruin kinetic bliss?

 
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