LIVE: The Hot Club of Cowtown @ The Linda, 3/30/11

Hot Club of Cowtown
Elana James and Whit Smith

It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing, but not to worry – the Hot Club of Cowtown were swinging up a storm last Wednesday at The Linda in front of a nearly sold-out crowd.

Fiddler Elana James provided the zing. Guitarist Whit Smith served up the zip. And bassist Jake Erwin anchored it all with a mighty slap-happy thump.

It came as no surprise that the focus of the Austin trio’s two-hour performance was the time-honored western swing of Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys. After all, their new album, “What Makes Bob Holler,” is a tribute to Wills and the boys, or at least to HCCT’s favorite era of Wills’ music – from the late ’30s to the mid-40s.

In fact, they opened the show with a pair of Wills’ classics, “She’s Killing Me” and “Ida Red,” hewing fairly close to the Playboys’ arrangements. No major re-inventions here, and that was just fine because none were required. Wills’ vintage blend of country and jazz is still a near-perfect balance.

But they didn’t confine their set list to Wills’ music by any means. The band’s primary vocalist, Smith fronted some nifty original songs, most notably a broken-hearted down lonely late-night city streets, “When I Lost You.” James stepped up to handle the lead vocal chores on a number of fine selections as well, and she was especially potent on such standards as “You Took Advantage of Me,” “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” and “Our Love Is Here to Stay,” deftly balancing naiveté with a world-weary wisdom.

The group vocals were spot-on, often slipping into rich Andrews Sisters-like harmony, but the trio’s forte is their instrumental prowess. And whether they were whipping through Gypsy jazz gems like “Dark Eyes” and “Tchavolo Swing,” a bluegrass warhorse like “Orange Blossom Special” or a simply magnificent ballad treatment of Hoagy Carmichael’s classic “Stardust,” the threesome dazzled at every turn.

Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk

My other review at The Times Union
Excerpt from David Singer’s review at The Daily Gazette: “James fiddled away on ‘The Acorn Hill Breakdown.’ While they’re a tight swing-trio that excels as a unit, James seemed to steal the show with her violin playing. She can strike a wide range of emotion, doesn’t overplay her thoughts with a gazillion notes – rather cuts right to it, sometimes with a beatific grin, or a thoughtful, serious expression. Her singing also added the most colorful – and nostalgic – spots, as she did with ‘What Is the Matter with the Mill.’ James told us that she recently sang the Mill song in Texas, and was told by a native that he never heard a ‘gal sing it.’ Hard to picture James in Texas, or Kansas, where she grew up. Much easier to picture her in Barnard College, where she attended.”

She’s Killing Me
Ida Red
Dark Eyes
Oklahoma Hills
When I Lost You
Stay a Little Longer
You Took Advantage of Me
What’s the Matter With the Mill?
Time Changes Everything
Besame Mucho
Sally Goodin
I Can’t Give You Anything But Love
The Devil Ain’t Lazy
The Acorn Hill Breakdown
The Closest Thing to Love
Right or Wrong
‘Deed I Do
Tchavolo Swing
Sweet Jenny Lee
Texarkana Baby
Dev’lish Mary
Chinatown, My Chinatown
Orange Blossom Special
Our Love Is Here to Stay
Big Balls in Cowtown

Hot Club of Cowtown
Jake Erwin
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