It Don't Mean a Thing...

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

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.

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.  

"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."

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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