Review by J Hunter
Hot Club of San Francisco lead guitarist/founder Paul Mehling freely admits he is obsessed with Django Reinhart. He’s been this way since he first heard the jazz icon’s Quintet of the Hot Club of France in his early teens, and when Mehling couldn’t find musicians in the Bay Area who shared his obsession, he gathered musicians together and taught them how to play this music. Now 22 years later, Hot Club SF is the most detailed tribute to Reinhart’s genius on the menu today – and, as it turned out while watching them play Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, that’s a double-edged sword.
In recent years, Greater Nippertown’s been lucky enough to get tasty slices of Django from Stephane Wremble, James Carter and Frank Vignola, but that was primarily in transmitted through those artists’ own performance matrix. From the uptempo opening number “Peche a la Mouche” to the darkly romantic closer “Not Too Fast, Because I’m Struggling with the Green Tango” (Hey, don’t blame me – it’s Paolo Conte’s title), all we needed to get a complete taste of Reinhart’s time was if the TSBMH staff started pumping cigarette smoke into the Hall.
Hot Club SF uses two rhythm guitarists to keep the foundation “because that’s how Django did it,” and while it may have been hyperbole when Mehling called Isabelle Fontaine and Jeff Magidson “the best in the world,” they worked expertly with bassist Sam Rocha to maintain both the direction of every song and the intimacy of the overall performance. Reinhart’s music comes from an acoustic heart, so drums have no place at this table.
When Mehling wasn’t making jokes that had a little too much of a too-cool-for-my-haircut attitude, he turned out solid solos as he sat on a stool stage left, one two-toned wingtip hooked to one of the stool’s stretchers. On the other side of the stage, violinist Evan Price was serving up lines that were clean as a whistle and as far away from Jean-Luc Ponty screeching as you could get. An alumnus of the Turtle Island String Quartet, Price has a marvelous sense of swing that made Reinhart classics like “Rhythm Futur” and overall classics like Seymour Simons’ “All of Me” absolutely sublime. And while Hot Club SF’s theme song, “Don’t Panic,” may have been written in the last part of the 20th century (complete with a nod to Bay Area funk legends Sly & the Family Stone), the piece completely dovetailed with the music Reinhart wrote while hiding from the Nazis in Occupied Paris. Add to this the fact that the Hall is a perfect venue for acoustic music, and this show should have been perfect.
So why wasn’t it?
In a way, you really have to be dialed into Django’s music to enjoy it, because while there may be changes in meter and approach, the sound itself never varies. As a result, the full-band numbers sort of melted into one single song, no matter what they played or how well they played it. This even went for Dan Hicks’ “Waltz Magique,” Mehling’s tribute to both his former employer and the only man to (in Mehling’s words) build a bridge between Reinhart and the Beatles. And while I like Woody Allen films as much as the next guy, feeling like you’re locked inside the soundtrack of one of his films can really wear on you after a while.
Mehling must be aware of this phenomenon, which may explain why there was no intermission or encore. Structured pauses might give like-minded people a chance to escape. Then again, he had constructive ways of introducing variation to the show. The middle of the set was broken into two-handed and three-handed performances, with the best being Rocha and Magidson’s tongue-in-cheek rave-up “Everybody’s Talking ’bout Palm Springs.” During “I’ll See You in My Dreams”, every musician exchanged instruments at least once with every other musician, winding up with Mehling playing violin, Price playing guitar and Fontaine singing the lyric. The French native also did an outstanding job on Cole Porter’s “I Love Paris” as well as the French ballad “One Shouldn’t Break Anybody’s Dream”, and Mehling prefaced her performance by saying the new Hot Club SF disc will have Fontaine singing on every number.
“Twenty-two years,” Mehling added, “Thirteen albums, and we finally found a vocalist we can build a whole album around, and it’s Isabelle.”
Good thing, too. Because while the Hot Club of San Francisco may be beautifully faithful to the spirit of Django Reinhart, they’re really in need of a change-up pitch.