Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Squirrel Nut Zippers: Inevitable, Perennial, Timeless Bedlam

“Ain’t a man alive can shuck and jive better than Grandad can!”

Unless, of course, we include Jimbo Mathus and his merry mix of Squirrel Nut Zippers, who were kind enough to visit Houston a week or so ago.

This here Grandad may not know a chord of music from a cord of wood – that has something to do with sixth grade, Sister Perpetua and a pitch pipe.

But he does notice when his toe starts to tappin’. That discerning digit first happened upon the SNZ sound nearly 20 years ago on the small slice of commercial radio that still housed jazz, jump blues and the Great American Songbook.

The random radio offerings – from old-school DJ’s such as Paul Berlin and Scott Arthur – introduced bands like the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies and Brian Setzer Orchestra, spurring the never-ending discovery of numerous others, from the Jive Aces and Bellevue Cadillac all the way to Straight No Chaser and Zazu Zazz.

I even got to gush live and in person at Houston’s Toyota Center when the Royal Crown Revue’s incomparable horn section performed with Bette Midler during her aptly-billed “Kiss My Brass” tour along this path of mine to musical discovery.

Just followin’ my toe.

As I recall, it was SNZ’s “Put a Lid on It” that was deemed to exude enough sass and brass to fit the Classic Cool radio format … and the vocal stylings of Katherine Whalen certainly stand out in any crowd.

Over those many years, I’ve stumbled upon and procured most (perhaps all) of the band’s catalog. The “sound” features a variety of string-play (guitar, bass, banjo, mandolin, fiddle, you name it – current fiddle man Justin “Dr. Sick” Carr plays a saw on a couple of numbers) – accented nicely by set of horn players plenty able to swing when the occasion arises, for example “Got My Own Thing Now.”

Fittingly, the band’s irreverently clever lyrical wordplay might best be displayed in the title of a bouncy instrumental called “The Flight of the Passing Fancy.” And it certainly takes a little brass to revel in the notion that “The Suits Are Picking up the Bill.”

Despite some apparent squabbling among the group’s original members, Jimbo’s re-tooled unit – only he and percussion man Chris Phillips are originals – has deftly replicated the Zippers’ sound and feel. In particular Ingrid Lucia, who had the toughest pair of boots to fill  Ms. Whalen’s voice has been described somewhere as “Betty Boop Meets Billie Holliday.”

Ingrid’s got the Holliday end of that challenge covered quite nicely (e.g. “Good Morning, Mr. Afternoon), but the Boop-ing that fits so snugly into a tune like “Prince Nez” is unlike Lucia’s more subtle playfulness in the iconic “Mr. Zoot Suit” or her gentle irreverence in a standard like “I’d Rather Be in New Orleans" and some others.

In some video from early in the project, Ms. Lucia seemed an artist still struggling with how best to allow her skill set to convey the spirit of the original – a raised eye-brow seemed to accompany some of the remarks in Comment sections.

Nonetheless, when a Houston date – a free show at an easily accessible venue, to boot – was announced a while back …

… well, Put a Lid on It!

I’d decided not to seek out any more video, current or old. Nor in the interim did I listen to any of the band’s music on CD.

I was gonna give my music-lovin’ toe an uninfluenced opportunity to experience the sound of what my mind had begun to think of as the “Zipper-trinos.”

Grandma, who at the last minute chose to tag along on the trip, seemed amused by Kevin Russell’s Shinyribs show which ventured from James Brown to David Bowie. But a tough week of third grade caught up with JJ during the opening act and he curled up, head in my lap.

Perhaps abetted by the pleasingly icy chill of a cherry snow cone on a muggy mid-September evening, Little Man perked up to the richer, bouncier tone of the swing music, quite fittingly initiated with “Good Enough for Grandad.” Ol’ Jimbo (or whoever laid out the playlist for what had been advertised as an all-ages show) even seemed to position the cartoon that accompanies the bands performing of “The Ghost of Stephen Foster” with the young-un’s in mind, as my re-focused, eight-year-old running buddy responded to it with a sincere “That was Cool!”

The virtuosity of Miss Ingrid, now comfortable with all this material written for another voice, really shone through, most enjoyably to my ear during her “Evening at LaFitte’s.”

As the nice lady from the Miller Outdoor Theater was reading her Zipper-intro, I turned to Jayden Michael, sitting between his grandparents and attending his first-ever concert, and said:

“Get ready, dude! One day a long time from now, when you take your own grandson to a concert, you’ll be able to tell him about the time your Grandma and Grandpa took you to see the craziest band you ever did see. This is gonna be good.” 

Our progeny just looked at me, but GG gave Popi a smile and a nod.

“All the good times that we had,
They were good enough for Grandad,
They’re good enough for me.”