THE BEBOP COWBOYS at the Cadillac Lounge (1296 Queen West), Friday (January 18), 9 pm. $5. 416-536-7717.
although toronto is probably the last place you'd expect to find a band playing late-30s western swing in 2002, that's precisely the reason why the Bebop Cowboys' Wednesday-night residency at the Cadillac Lounge is such a success. When it comes to knocking out Bob Wills-style hillbilly boogie and honky-tonk with a jazzy kick, guitarist Steve Briggs and his freewheeling ensemble of scene veterans -- drummer John Adames (Prairie Oyster), bassist Dennis Pinhorn (Downchild), steel guitarist Burke Carroll (George Fox, Dottie Cormier) and blues harpist Howard Willett -- have a local monopoly.
They also have a swank new self-released disc, cleverly named Debut. It well displays their knowledge of the pre-rock 'n' roll form that encompasses elements of blues, hot jazz and old-timey fiddle music. Yet their clever reworking of Bill Doggett's juke-joint R&B standard Ram-Bunk-Shush shows the Cowboys are willing to play with the parameters.
"This being a band made up of sidemen," explains the jazz-schooled Briggs, "we're all coming from different places musically and we each bring our own set of influences. Since western swing is such a mixed bag itself, this is really the perfect music for us to be playing together.
"I mean, anybody can throw in a blues lick, a jazz riff or even a bluegrass run, and it all works within a western swing format as long as it's played tastefully."
When it comes to western swing, taste is crucial, as Briggs discovered when trying to make the transition from informal jam sessions with like -minded Spade Cooley fans to a real working band.
"At first we were all so excited about the level of musicianship brought together, we were soloing at every opportunity and it was turning into a blow-fest. Eventually, I had to say, "Hang on, guys -- we're losing the feel of western swing.' Hot riffs are fine, but you can't forget that you're playing a song with a melody, and that melody is very important.
"Western swing was pop music in its time, and I think that pop sensibility is what's still appealing about it today. That might be why some people say, "I don't really like country music but I like what you guys do.'"
Considering all the other bands that the members of the Bebop Cowboys split their time with, it's unlikely they would've been able to develop their unique take on western swing so quickly were it not for their weekly gig at the Cadillac Lounge. Briggs and company evidently took a tip from the new kids on the block.
"We got the residency idea from the Backstabbers and Crazy Strings," confides Briggs. "It not only gives you great exposure and builds your following, (but) playing for a live audience every week really helps with the whole creative process.
"There's much more that goes into making a great band than putting five incredible musicians in a room. You need to play together to develop a chemistry. I've seen bands that probably didn't know any more than five chords between them but they clicked, and that's what people respond to when they go to a show.
"When someone says, "You're even better tonight than you were last Wednesday,' I know we're on the right track."