CANADIAN DANCE HALL CD RELEASE PARTY with the BEBOP COWBOYS and guests RUSSELL deCARLE , CHUCK JACKSON , ALEX PANGMAN , CHRIS WHITELEY and others, at the Lula Lounge (1585 Dundas West), Sunday (May 7), 8:30 pm. $10. Dinner reservations 416-588-0307. Rating: NNNNN
It was Toronto's own Bebop Cowboys, not any band from Bob Wills's home state of Texas, leading last year's 100th birthday celebration for the late king of western swing. And for an encore, the weekend warriors who first brought the sound that Wills popularized to audiences in the Great White North are celebrating their fabulous self-released Canadian Dance Hall disc at the Lula Lounge on Sunday (May 7). The disc has superb interpretations of Wills's repertoire staples like Fat Boy Rag, Brain Cloudy Blues and I Laugh When I Think (How I Cried Over You), which shook town halls and barn dances all across Canada in the pre-rock 'n' roll era. But they've also added a number of their own compositions that stand proudly alongside the genre classics and put the Cowboys well beyond the class of mere revivalists.
"Since we started this group," says Bebop Cowboys mainman guitarist Steve Briggs, "we've been getting e-mails and having people come up to us at shows saying, 'It's so great to hear you playing this kind of music that I remember my uncle playing on the weekends.'
"Of course, we all know western swing originated in the southwestern U.S., but for many people here in Canada, the first time they ever saw musicians playing this music, it was performed by local players at the town dance hall. Even early Canadian television shows like Holiday Ranch would have the house band members decked out in Stetsons and cowboy shirts, playing western-swing-style music on fiddles and accordion. It occurred to me that western swing may have been a much more important part of our Canadian cultural heritage than many people realize.
"With this new album, we wanted to acknowledge the fact that western swing knows no borders and that we're not setting a precedent by playing this music in Canada. We're celebrating a Canadian tradition and the unsung heroes behind it who are now mostly forgotten. "
The Bebop Cowboys' salute to Bob Wills at the Lula Lounge last May seems to have had a direct effect on the recording of Canadian Dance Hall, which, like the concert, features the Cowboys backing a cast of guest vocalists drawn from their network of artist acquaintances and long-time pals.
While the appearance of Prairie Oyster frontman Russell deCarle (whose contribution, a terrific reading of the barstool bawler Misery, owes as much to Merle Haggard's honky-tonk update as it does to Tommy Duncan's classic early takes) should be no great shock to anyone, seeing Sarah Harmer credited on the Hoagy Carmichael standard Stardust may have some western swing fans scratching their heads.
Harmer attempted similar material with disappointing results on her Songs For Clem recording. But this time she has seasoned professionals along for the ride and does a remarkably good job of it, considering this was her first crack at the tune. Unfortunately, a prior engagement prevents Harmer from reprising her performance at the Canadian Dance Hall release party Sunday evening.
"A lot of folks who appear on the album are friends and people we've worked with over the years, like Russell, but I like the idea of bringing in artists who people might not expect to see on a Bebop Cowboys album, such as Sarah Harmer. It can only help to broaden our reach. Stardust is one of my all-time favourite songs, and I could really see Sarah singing it, but when you approach someone you haven't worked with before, you never know how things will work out.
"I'm happy to say that she's a wonderful person and a very accomplished musician who had no problem at all fitting in with what we were doing. I don't think Sarah was familiar with the tune, so I had some sheet music in the studio when she arrived. She sight-read it, sat down at the piano and began to figure out how she was going to sing it. She got inside of it right away, delivering the melody and the lyrics in a very unaffected way, almost like Hoagy Carmichael would sing it.
"I wrote out the chart and we rehearsed it with the band, and when she ran through it the first time everybody was blown away."