Grab your dancin’ shoes — hot jazz and western swing trio Hot Club of Cowtown, is performing Sunday, Sept. 22, at Centennial Hall. The band will perform in five Alaska cities before they arrive in Juneau. This is their third time playing before a Juneau audience. They headlined the 2004 Alaska Folk Festival, and returned for the 2012 Juneau Jazz & Classics Festival.
Front man Whit Smith is on guitar, Elana James plays fiddle and Jake Erwin is a percussion slap bassist. All three sing vocals. The trio, based out of Austin, Texas, has been touring together since 1997.
They put a contemporary spin on the hot jazz and western swing of older musical eras. Their unique blend, combined with their unaffected vocals makes the kind of magic that drives audiences out of their seats and onto the dance floor. They love it when the audience dances, so come prepared to get up and move.
“We have done three shows in Juneau and the response is unmistakable, explosive joy and enthusiasm, this fuels us on, we are receptive to how the audience responds to us. Performances requires live participation and Alaska meets their end of the deal,” said Smith.
Smith, who grew up singing folk songs with his mother every night, accompanied by his father’s guitar playing, brought the group together.
“I was more interested in rock music, like Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones at the time, but it wasn’t long before I picked up guitar,” said Smith. At 17, he became so consumed with improving musically he mowed lawns, waxed cars, and washed dishes to earn money for lessons, better guitars and amps.
Smith moved to New York City in 1984, and lived with his grandmother while he studied with jazz guitarist Bill Conners. He worked in a music store where he was free to graze music from all eras. A history buff, he found music that really resonated with him.
“I found albums with instrumentals from the 40s and 50s, they were jazzy fast virtuoso instrumentals and older western swing,” said Smith. He loves everything about those eras.
“America was an amazing place in the first half of the last century.... a really progressive era for mankind. I like everything about that time — the movies, the clothes, planes and automobiles. More time was put into the details then, and I love the details,” laughed Smith.
He was so inspired he decided to put together a group. In 1994 he went in search of a violin player and found Elana James. It turned into an eleven-piece band that played at New York City’s Rodeo Bar. After two years, he pared down to just James and himself. They moved to San Diego in 1997 where they spent a year playing for tips on the street and in parks.
Then they moved to Austin and, within a few months, had an agent and a record deal. Jake Erwin joined them with his slap bass percussion, a style that began in early New Orleans jazz. Erwin is the youngest musician inducted into the Texas Western Swing Hall of Fame.
Linda Rosenthal, Juneau Jazz & Classics founder, plays violin and first heard about fiddle player James through her classical violin connections. Though she became aware of James first, she said all three band members are equally gifted instrumentalists.
“Elana is an incredible musician, a virtuoso in the violin world,” said Rosenthal. “Over the years I heard their recordings. I heard great feedback from other festivals. As internationally renowned artists, they have a great reputation worldwide... they are a joy to present,” said Rosenthal.
I was the hospitality hostess for the 2012 Juneau Jazz & Classics Festival, and was fortunate to spend time with them behind the scenes the night they performed. I saw musicians out of the spotlight, and in the institutional green room kitchen. The Cowtown trio was professional, genuine, and down-to-earth, with a great sense of humor. They had a novel approach to preparation. They split up into three tiny broom closets and storage rooms to rehearse, then came together to harmonize.
Smith pairs a soulful, ingenious voice reminiscent of a young Willie Nelson, who he toured with in 2004. His lyrics address the universal problems of human existence, he sings about the walls we build, about unrequited love. James’ vocals are soothing and uncomplicated, while her fiddle comes alive with riffs of her classical beginnings, and Kansas City upbringing. Erwin slaps the bass with dynamic, exuberant energy. His incredible sound adds the spirit of Oklahoma, where he grew up.
Listening to Hot Club of Cowtown, one is transported to earlier musical eras — the southwest swing of the ‘40s and ‘50s, gypsy jazz, and the French swing of Paris in the ‘30s. When they perform, troubles are shared, the world seems simpler; feet feel lighter and toes start tapping. There is only one thing to do — dance!
The show begins at 7:30 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 22, at Centennial Hall. Tickets are $30 for general admission, $25 for seniors and $20 for students with ID. They will have CDs available for purchase at the event. For more information about the band visit: http://www.hotclubofcowtown.com