Swing Backwards

HOT CLUB OF COWTOWN at the Top o' the Senator (249 Victoria), tonight through Saturday (April 11 to 13). $15-$20..

HOT CLUB OF COWTOWN at the Top o’ the Senator (249 Victoria), tonight through Saturday (April 11 to 13). $15-$20. 416-364-7517.

Rating: NNNNN

While Carla Bozulich revisits Willie Nelson’s concept classic Red Headed Stranger, across town at the Senator Austin’s Hot Club of Cowtown will be digging deeper into the music that first inspired Nelson, namely the Texas style of western swing defined by Bob Wills and Milton Brown in the late 30s and early 40s.

Unlike Bozulich and the Nels Cline Singers, though, highly skilled Cowtowners guitarist Whit Smith, fiddler Elena Fremerman and bassist Jake Irwin aren’t interested in the process of revising or reinterpreting. They’re using their vast knowledge of the western swing form to recreate the sound precisely as it was over half a century ago.

Like any serious novelty act, they dress the part, paying strict attention to period detail in their 30s-era stagewear. A sharp eye might even notice that Smith’s gorgeous Gibson arch-top dates to 1925, which is actually more likely the vintage of instrument a musician working in the later 30s would be picking. Similarly, old western swing music only makes up a small portion of their dusty 78 listening.

“We’re not trying to copy a sound we’re really trying to be a western swing band from the 30s,” says Smith from his Austin home.

“So we don’t only listen to western swing music but, rather, more of the hot jazz music of the 20s that a western swing player of the later 30s would’ve heard while growing up.”

How very quaint. No doubt the members of Bjorn Again would like to be ABBA, yet dressing up in blond wigs and sparkly platforms isn’t really going to do it — even if they did listen to 60s Swedish beat singles by the Hep Stars and Shanes.

If Bob Wills were alive today, the forward-looking innovator would surely be stupefied by the idea of a band copping his arrangement of Tumblin’ Tumbleweeds some 60 years on.

Despite having recorded a couple of their own throwback compositions, Cowtown aren’t building on the form, but preserving it as a museum piece so paying customers can marvel at how things were done in the good old days.

Not that being a working anachronism is a bad thing. The Cowtowners offer concert-going seniors a rare chance to see foxtrots performed almost exactly as their parents heard them.

The trouble is that the over-65-year-old target audience can be hard to tap, so until they find a booking agent who can get them a potentially lucrative tour of retirement homes, they’ll need to keep busking outside donut shops and pharmacies.

“We actually play on streets every day when we’re on tour. One of the best places we tried busking turned out to be Aspen, Colorado. It was, like, ‘Daddy, Daddy, can I have another $20 bill for the poor musician?’

“We made $300 an hour — no exaggeration — although we had to stop when the cops pulled up in their Audi and told us to get lost.”

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