Squirrel Nut Zippers
with Andrew Bird’s Ball of Fire and Ray Condo + the Ricochets
The Roxy, Boston • October 24, 1998
If people can be satisfied going to a club to listen to pre-recorded swing music, a live show must be an experience to behold. And anyone who says that the only reason the music has come back into the limelight is because some overpriced clothing store stuck it in a commercial is sorely mistaken. Swing is back because it’s amazing music, and the bands that crank out the stuff (although, if you want to argue it, the Squirrel Nut Zippers are more Charleston-oriented, but it’s all in the same family) put on live shows that are almost unparalleled experiences.
Thanks to my friend’s uncanny inability to successfully make use of the public transportation system in Boston, we ended up going to wrong way down the subway and by the time we had gotten to the show, we had missed the first band. But, my friend Mike Hirsch had the following to say:
Andrew Bird’s Ball of Fire put on a jazzy upbeat 30 minute set and got the sparse crowd on the dance floor moving early on. Their sound seemed to be somewhere in between Louis Prima swing, Count Basie jazz, and of course, SNZ new age swing. Andrew Bird’s sweeping violin added a brilliant touch to what would be just another swing band. His emotion-filled solos added flair and melody to the standard, but steady, backup. They opened with the booming “Minor Stab,” a sweet jam, which defined their sound. In the latter parts of the set, the sound their ballad abilities with the bittersweet “Vidalia,” and showed their swing sound with the easily danceable “Coney Island Shuffle.” The band definitely proved to be a nice opener to what was a nice concert, and with so few people on the dance floor, there was space to enjoy the show; a luxury that was all but lost by the time that SNZ got on stage.
Next up were a couple of guys from Vancouver that were dressed like Kenny Rogers was back in town. Fronted by that band’s namesake (who looked like Howdy Doody), Ray Condo + the Ricochets played their mix of country, blues, rockabilly, and probably a few other influences I couldn’t even pick out to a crowd that, as Ray Condo said, looked “like a group of dirty thirties.” The set was pretty enjoyable, as they kicked out a few instrumentals and a good portion of pseudo-love songs like one that was introduced as “I Said I Love You, Now Get Out.” For one number, the Squirrel Nut Zippers’ Katharine Whalen, who truly has to have one of the most beautiful voices in the business, joined in to provide the vocals. After a quality forty-five minutes of music, Ray Condo + the Ricochets wrapped up and took off.
During the break, practically everyone in the place tried to fit themselves on the dance floor so that it was a challenge to figure out whose elbow was in your stomach, let alone have delusions of actually swing dancing. The cheesy shiny silver background the Roxy provided was raised to reveal a background of two of the fruits that decorate the Squirrel Nut Zippers’ latest album, Perennial Favorites. The band then took to the stage, greeted by an impressive display of applause and a couple of flying Mardi-Gras necklaces from the traveling group of fans who have been dubbed “The Twinkie People” for their insistent throwing of Twinkies onstage at every show. They put on the necklaces and jumped into “Memphis Exorcism,” off their second album, Hot. It was a little disappointing to think that there was a good chance that it was going to be too crowded to dance, but the crowd still thoroughly enjoyed themselves as they bopped around and sang along. A good number of experienced swing dancers retreated to the back of the club where they’d have more room, while the band just kept on kicking out their amazing songs, such as the swinging “Bad Businessman” and the Wizard of Oz-esque “Soon.” Each member of the band was amazing to watch, as they all had the energy of that damned pink bunny, and practically had a different instrument in their hands for every song. Guitars would be put down for saxophones and clarinets, Katharine, when not singing, would be sitting on a chair playing the banjo, and a gong made its way onstage a few times. After a surprisingly short 50 minutes, which of course included their singles “Hell” and “Suits are Picking Up the Bill,” they ended their set with “Flight of the Passing Fancy,” took a collective bow, and headed offstage.
No more than two minutes later, the already deafening crowd got even louder as Squirrel Nut Zippers took to the stage again, this time accompanied by guest-violinist from their albums and the first band, Andrew Bird. A few more necklaces flew up, the band threw a few back, and they broke into “Got My Own Thing Now.” As the three-song encore wrapped itself up with a cover of Palmer/Williams’s “I’ve Found A New Baby,” a tiny little oval finally did open up for me and my friend to show off our dancing semi-expertise to a crowd that was impressively over-enthusiastic and clapped for every twist and dip we did.
The stage presence of these guys and gal was terrific, and their musical expertise makes the Squirrel Nut Zippers a band whose show you really don’t ever want to miss. It might take a bit of innovation to try and get a dance going without having to go to the back of the club, but it’s all worth it even if the circle never forms. If you’re still unsure why the swing revival is picking up speed the way it is, there’s a good chance a show like this would smother any doubts about it. Hell, you might even do a turn or so.