Plaintive Anthems

22 January Joel Paterson and the Modern Sounds, Eddie Clendening, Ruby Ann
23 January Hoyle Brothers

“Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades” as the poet rued, not knowing he would be remembered for not being James Dean, and Eddie Clendening and Ruby Ann played their final show in Chicago Friday night —at least for a while—at the always-urbane Ventrella’s Cafe on the North Side. The show itself was terrific—Eddie’s voice is more than remarkable, while the Modern Sounds are perhaps the best dance band in the city—but the occasion was bifurcated by two moods: a joy for Eddie, who’s moving on as part of Million Dollar Quartet’s expedition to Mt. Broadway, but also a sense of, if not melancholy, at least diminishment. Not only for Eddie, but also for Ventrella’s, which for a while in 2009 was maybe the best venue in the city: BYOB, only a nominal cover, ridiculously talented musicians, a dance-friendly crowd, and a passable dance floor. We are in the season of endings, and not yet beginnings, and so maybe it was inevitable that the evening ended forcibly with a martial display by Chicago’s Finest.

The CPD, however, walked away with nothing more than a citation for an unauthorized jukebox, making the evening’s final note in the key of slapstick. My friend the connoisseur of obscure emotional states argued it was the perfect Chicago night: screaming joy mixed with sorrow, ending with farce blended with terror of authority and the historical memory of the Depression. No one who heard it disagreed, though it may not have been heard by many as we did the quickstep out the back door while the badges flashed in front.

The humor at the end of Friday was mirrored by the weather late Saturday: the temperature rose enough to raise hopes of another season with it, hopes not dashed by the brief rainstorm that accompanied it. Saturday night was Friday’s younger brother: the mixtures of humor and pathos were reversed. The occasion was the Hoyles’ final show before their departure to points south—I am reliably informed that the front of Hoyles’ headquarters has a sign, “Gone to Texas,” ready for placement at the proper time. The Hoyles are no strangers to these notes, and they’ve also been the subject of glowing reviews in both the Reader and the Trib lately, so I’m not going to discuss much about their last Chicago show before their expedition to Mt. Austin. But the brief rainstorm last night, towards the end of the last set, brought with it whispers of the next season.

Saturday’s show had other hints and allegations surrounding it, along both directions of time’s arrow. Three younger dancers turned up—it was odd to find out I’m now somewhat of a veteran, after a bit over a year—curious and questioning. And yet at the same time another friend, a veteran in more or less the same sense I am, i.e. not very, asked some questions regarding what I knew of the past of this dance stuff, a history that more or less by chance I know something about. As I watched those younger kids struggle with 6-count turns, it occurred to me that writing that knowledge, however poor it is, might be valuable to someone, sometime.

To tell the story of where we’ve been after all, Lincoln remarks in a speech somewhere, is to tell the story of where we are going. I don’t particularly know where things are going, but I’ll tell what I know in a short capsule history anyway. (It would be great if people could add what they know—people, places, bands.) The genre of the story is itself kind of fascinating. As it’s been told to me by more than one source, the story of swing dance in Chicago, at least since the revival at the end of the last century, has a kind of post-apocalyptic, “and I alone am escaped to tell thee” flavor. It’s also reminiscent of And the Band Played On …, in that it is an epidemiological story, with a “Patient Zero.” There’s a history as well as a mythology about it.

The patient was Howard B., who brought swing back to Chicago for the first time in decades sometime during the mid-90s, probably at least by 1996 and not earlier than 1993. Howard was a doctor who’d transferred from Los Angeles, where he’d been part of the Pasadena Ballroom Association along with Erin Stevens and Steven Mitchell, two dance partners who, after viewing some old films (Hellzapoppin’ and A Day at the Races), were led to down an investigatory trail that eventually wound up at Frankie Manning, a New York City postal worker who’d long since forgotten his dance career. Arriving in Chicago, Howard danced all over town, including the country bar Whiskey River (which later became the celebrated Liquid) where eventually someone asked him just what he was doing. Eventually Howard began teaching a small group of students. These were some of the people now noted as Chicago’s best instructors.

Yet after some period described to me as being either a few months to as much as a year, the group remained small. They practiced together by dancing to old records, apparently in each other’s apartments, but nowhere else. That however changed with the first show by the Chicago band, the Mighty Blue Kings, at MadBar on Damen in the space now known as Cans. At this point mythology begins to turn to history—the Blue Kings formed sometime in 1994, and put out their first record in 1996. For several years thereafter, Howard rented space in a dance studio on Lincoln Avenue in the city, teaching swing once a week, advertising by word of mouth and a small ad placed in the Chicago Reader which read, simply, “Learn to Lindy.” Around this time, a few of the pioneers made the trip to Catalina Island in California, home to a dance camp hosted by Erin Stevens and Steven Mitchell. And then, in the spring of 1998, jean company The Gap released a television commercial.

What happened next is fairly well-known to many, and is a good example of what the writer Malcolm Gladwell, borrowing from epidemiological studies, has called “the tipping point”: a break-out moment when what was underground becomes mainstream. Whiskey River became Liquid, and classes that had once had only a few students were now being taught to dozens, even hundreds at a time. The stories of those who were there at the time all have certain common threads: many were completely absorbed, to the exclusion of everything else. Some others, particularly those who were there at the beginning, were making money, sometimes substantial amounts.

In the history of the Nazi U-Boat war called, afterwards, the Battle of the Atlantic, during World War II, the year or so directly after the entry of the United States into the war was known by the Germans submariners as the “Happy Time,” because it was so easy to torpedo U.S. ships. The United States did not do even elementary things like try to protect their fleet by bunching them up in convoys for safety in numbers, or bother to blackout the lights on the coast. Analogously, the time from the summer of 1998 through, as near as I can make out, sometime in the fall of 2001, was a “happy time” for swing—bands played out everywhere, everyone knew or wanted to know how to dance, and money was, at least for a fortunate few, almost falling from the sky.

It’s difficult to know just why that time ended. Perhaps the “swing fad,” like other such fads before it—disco, anyone?—had simply run its course, like a disease that has just run out of potential victims. Eventually anyone left not already brought down by the illness has developed some resistance to it. Dance is something for young single people, after all: eventually most dancers get steady jobs, marry, have kids—the kinds of things that don’t allow for late nights chasing bands and dance partners. Some people, though, have speculated that there might be some correlation with those jetliners in New York City in the early fall of 2001. It isn’t hard to see some historical rhyme like that: swing dance’s big revival happened during that time of “irrational exuberance” called by some the Roaring ’90s. Maybe in that way the end of swing’s “happy time” merely foreshadowed the economic crash that we are seeing now, the crash held back from its natural arrival by the war and unrelenting Republican military Keynesianism. But all songs, as Keats knew before he could know he was James Dean, come to an end, anthems or not. 

Elements of Show

18 January Dale Watson; Hoyle Brothers

19 January Rhythm Rockets
20 January Western Elstons

Dale Watson blew into town Monday on a breeze that must have got lost leaving Austin, but since the weather was not actively trying to kill me—despite what the Texans had to say about it—I trundled up to Martyrs’ on the Damen bus to see him. The Damen bus has been described to me as one of the more entertaining routes in the city, though I think this is only true if you are from out of town, extraordinarily cute and intelligent and naive all at once, and not very tall. If you are those things, then I can see the point: the Damen bus travels through some interesting neighborhoods, for white people anyway. It also travels a very long stretch of the city, from deep on the South Side to Andersonville. I tend to think the Western Avenue bus is far more interesting, since virtually anything can happen on it, but short cute white girls tend to get plenty of adrenaline in their life already without actively courting it. There was no excitement of any kind on the Damen bus this evening, however, and I arrived at Martyrs’ unscathed and refreshingly early; opening act the Hoyle Brothers hadn’t even started yet. I anticipated a great show: I saw Dale in the spring last year at the same venue and it was, really, one of the better nights I’ve ever spent.

Now, I’ve had it in my mind to try to organize these short blog essays around some sort of theme rather than allowing them to be just recitations of dates and band names—ideally you’ve noticed. In an earlier entry I examined the notion of continuity, places and bands that are consistently good, over and over. These three shows this week, however, are wild examples of discontinuity: each show was different from the others. Their differences though illustrate the three elements that construct a good show, the interplay between performer, venue, and the oft-overlooked third element, the audience.

Dale Watson is already a kind of living legend, the “Lone Star Troubadour” as he’s billed since Ernest Tubb was the Texas Troubadour, and his band is no-less outstanding. They play honky-tonk music, exactly the sort (well, better than most) that you might hear in a Texas roadhouse, and can hear at the internationally-famous Ginny’s Little Longhorn Saloon in Austin where Dale holds down the Sunday afternoon spot. There’s little to say about the music, which is wonderfully danceable. The crowd, however, differed substantially from those I saw Dale’s show with in the spring of ’09.

That crowd had been larger than the crowd at Martyrs’, but while large crowds usually spell the end of dancing, in that case part of it was made up of people from Austin, who quickly and mysteriously made room for a dancefloor in the midst of it. (I’d still like to know how they did it—if anyone knows, please write.) No such luck on this night, though. During the Hoyle Brothers set, which was great and excellent prep for their scheduled tour to Austin, there was plenty of room on Martyrs’ floor, but during the break the floor gradually filled. A friend did ask Dale to mention something about making space for dancing, which Dale was gracious enough to do when he started his set, but it had almost no effect, particularly on the large couple that had settled in front and center and who collectively weighed enough to feed most of Port-au-Prince for the rest of the year, if not the decade. They were of course surly (as who wouldn’t be if if your life was a constant series of children frightened that you’d ate the sun), singlehandedly sending dancers to search for unused floor space elsewhere—floor space that was of course concrete instead of the nice wooden floor Martyrs has in front of the stage. But the music was so ridiculously fine that this had little effect on the evening’s fun.

Still, there is one caveat: whereas at the spring show Dale had played at least 3 and possibly 4 encores after playing for 3 hours straight (no set breaks), this time he only came back for the first encore after the bass player literally told the crowd they’d have to do better if they wanted an encore. Enthusiasm did pick up, and Dale did play another encore afterwards, but then the show was done, and the crowd did not seem disappointed. Perhaps it was because the work-week started the next day—Monday being MLK Day—but the spring’s show was also during the week, so it’s hard to see how that mattered. No, I think that there was some difference between the two crowds; perhaps it was the presence of the Austinites the first time around. In any case, the night demonstrated the effect a crowd can have on a show quite effectively, if also depressingly.

The next night though effectively demonstrated the positive effect a crowd can have, even when a band might not be at its best. The Rhythm Rockets performed at Martini Park, a good venue marred by sometimes odd managerial decisions. I don’t want to dwell on the show, since it was marked by an at-times uneven vocal performance—the rest of the band was excellent—but the crowd, though not as large as it’s sometimes been at Martini Park, pulled the band through. Whereas at Dale’s show a great band and a terrific venue was marred by an unenthusiastic crowd, this show was enlivened by support from the crowd, which cheered even the often-inane patter of the band leader, Dave Downer.

Crowd support is not much of an issue for the Western Elstons, an incredible supergroup of Chicago musicians. Jimmy Sutton, Joel Paterson, Scott Ligon, Casey McDonough, and Alex Hall are each in several other groups, but together they make up what might be the best dance band in Chicago, if not the Midwest generally. The crowd at Simon’s is aware of that; sometimes during slow songs the entire bar will be eerily silent while conversely, at the end of songs, the whole place will erupt into deafening cheers. Simon’s is a fun venue—during good weather Scott the bar-owner will cook free hot dogs outside on the grill—though it has almost no space for dance. The venue is the weakest part of the show; Simon’s almost makes up for it with cheap drinks, friendly staff, and the aforementioned hot dogs. But it does make you wish the Elstons would play, at least once in a while, somewhere else with a proper dance floor.

Each of these shows then illustrated a different facet of what makes a great show: band, venue, and audience. Dale’s show at Martyrs’ demonstrated how a difficult crowd can detract from a great band in a great venue; the Rhythm Rockets’ show at Martini Park displayed how a good crowd can help a band; and the Western Elstons’ show at Simon’s revealed how a great band together with a good crowd can overcome a limited venue. Searching for a good show comes down to finding the best combination of these three facets. Finding that combination is like a smooth ride on the Western Avenue bus: unexpectedness enhances the pleasure.

New Year’s Dances

Joel Paterson Dec. 27.
Bill Porter Dec. 29
Western Elstons Dec. 30
Lesley Byers Dec. 31
Art Adams Dec. 31.
Fairfields Jan. 1
Del Moroccos and Los Straitjackets Jan. 2.
Fulton County Line Jan. 2.

Rainy and dreary, Christmas itself just missed being green this year, but the day after brought the kind of storm that recalls the end of James Joyce’s Dubliners: “Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland.” We saw shows all over Chicago in the last days of 2009, beginning with Joel Patterson’s combo the Modern Sounds on the 27th at Simon’s, and after a ten-day holiday stretch of rigorous testing, from Christmas Eve to now, three days after New Year’s, the best place in Chicago to dance just might be the California Clipper. Let’s take inventory one night at a time to inaugurate this blog, which I intend to provide in-depth discussion of swing, rockabilly, and Western swing dancing in Chicago during what inevitably will be called the Obama era. I, your host, am a relative newcomer to this scene, only having learned how a bit more than a year ago; my girlfriend however is a gritty veteran, and part of the fun of learning to dance has been the opportunity to listen to her dish about favorite Chicago venues, bands, and old nasty gossip about people who kicked that habit or that crazy boyfriend ten years ago. There won’t be much of the latter (at least, names will be changed to protect the known guilty) but I hope to outline something about what it is to dance in Chicago right now. Without more ado, then:

Joel Patterson may or may not be familiar to you, but this fall another musician—a guitarist himself—in conversation called Joel Patterson the best guitarist in Chicago, period. That is not a bad sobriquet to have; the show at Simon’s in Andersonville on 27 December did not disappoint any expectations. Joel usually isn’t the best with stage patter, perhaps no surprise given the intensity that has given him the aforementioned priority in the Windy City, but tonight he was pretty loose between songs while the band (Alex Hall, Beau Sample) was, as always, tight during them. The venue, Simon’s, however was packed with a post-holiday crowd, many of them college types home for break, and we left after the first set. How could we do that? Well, Simon’s (if you haven’t been) has almost no room to dance even if the place is empty, and though we did take some turns during the less-crowded first set by the start of the second it became impossible. Listening to Joel without being able to dance is somewhat excruciating, hence a quick exit.

Two days later, after giving the Holiday edition of Fizz a miss—we are, I had better make clear, anti-Fizz for a number of reasons that I may provide in a later post—found us at Green Dolphin Street to see the Bill Porter Orchestra. Green Dolphin Street is named after a song that was named after a movie, providing a theme for the interior design but also a signal about the character of the place: the movie is about a man who sends the wrong letter to the wrong girl, and the management of the venue is similarly confused. Is GDS a bar or a restaurant? Are they either one of those first, and a dance venue second, or the other way around? If it is a music venue, what sort of venue, gay dance party for some of Chicago’s hippest, as it is on Monday nights for the Boom Boom Room, or sedate ballroom for highly-polished pro jazz band, as Bill Porter’s outfit is? Not to mention the salsa—the dance, not the condiment. GDS is always talked about as a potentially great venue (the room really is great, and floor is one of the best in the city), but one held back by insensitive, not to say incompetent, management. It isn’t a place we often hit because Tuesday is usually reserved for Martini Park, especially when the Flat Cats play but a holiday crowd brought with it some oldtimers known to my gf, so … It was what GDS and Bill Porter always are: smooth, relatively polished, but with some irritating features, such as a $10 cover. There a few bands I’d pay $10 for; Bill Porter is not one of them.

It was back to Simon’s on Wednesday for what might be my favorite show in Chicago right now, the Western Elstons. Sure, there isn’t much room to dance, but there’s enough of a critical mass that shows up every show that we can usually make it work. It helps that usually the mass part is filled with follows, meaning that leads like myself can stay out on the floor one song after another with a different follow each time. I would mention how attractive they all are, but that might mean that other leads might start showing up. Nix that. I won’t be saying much more about the Western Elstons other than to mention that Joel Patterson, the above-mentioned best guitarist in the city plays steel guitar for them. Think about it.

Thursday was New Year’s, and we took ourselves to fdm, or fonda del mar, for dinner and Lesley Byers for post-meal entertainment. Both meal and band were, unfortunately, a little overcooked—Lesley has a nice voice and the band is solid, but the music doesn’t swing or rock, particularly by comparison with the Western Elstons the night before. Also, the musicians had an irritating tendency to stretch out songs, leading to 8-minute versions of “Fly Me To the Moon” and the like, which is fun if the song is fun but if not, not. But the evening was salvaged by a trip up Lincoln Avenue to the Horseshoe to catch the end of the rockabilly New Year’s show: Art Adams and his band closed, and we were lucky to get there while the embers of the place—Art having been engaged in burning it down since he took the stage—still smoldered. Adams is a living legend for the rockabilly kids because he is one of the keepers of flame: after two hits in 1959 and 1960, Art quit the music business in 1968 for thirty years, until 2003. He is a kind of time machine allowing direct access to the past—no joke, because Art plays as if the past fifty years never happened. It’s like imagining what might have happened had the Beatles never went to Hamburg. Art Adams, used to salvaging careers and lives, saved New Year’s.

The Friday following, New Year’s Day, was expectedly quiet. The girl and I barely arose to make what is usually the Hoyle Brothers Honky Tonk Happy Hour slot at 5:30 (yep, that’s right) at the Empty Bottle. The Hoyles were taking a well-deserved break however, with their time filled by the Fairfields, Tim Tobin’s band. With low expectations, we joined a sparse crowd that had fought its way through the Arctic chill, provided free of charge by our Canadian continent-mates, to the Bottle. The Fairfields however put up a sonic barrier against the cold, playing a loud and aggressive sound that was fun to dance to—which was easy since, as usual, the dance floor at the Bottle was virtually empty. Tim ought to get his guys to play out more.

That was it as far as dancing went on the night of the First, leading in to Saturday’s show at Fitzgerald’s out in Berwyn on Roosevelt Road. Now, let’s talk a minute about the venue. First, several of the best shows I’ve seen and danced to have been at Fitzgerald’s—yet, I also wouldn’t say that it is the most dance-friendly venue around either. In part of course this is due to the dance-unfriendliness of the larger Chicago music scene; whereas in, say, Austin, Texas dancing is expected, the default, in Chicago quite the reverse. Most people, when they go to a show, expect to stand around looking at the band the whole time. This is, I now realize, horrifying on several levels, but it isn’t really until you look into the mouth of the beast that the numbers of teeth become readily apparent. There were a lot of teeth, or tools, at Fitzgerald’s last night. Often that sort of resistance can be countered by quickthinking and movement-in-force (we can define those terms later), but without support from the rockabilly kids, admittedly not unexpected, the space we managed to clear for the opening act, the Del Moroccos, dissipated by the time Los Straitjackets came out. By which time, so did our tolerance for Blues Brothers-suits-matched-with-Mexican-wrestling-masks-and-surf-music.

That brought us to the California Clipper, maybe the best bar in Chicago. Fulton County Line, one of the better bands in town, was playing, first. But let’s go out singing the praises of the Clipper: it’s run by folks who understand their business and won’t put up with Lincoln Park shiny shirts (they will take their money, unfortunately), you can get a grape soda, the dance floor is empty most nights (and if it isn’t it’s easy to intimidate the drunks out of the way), and did I mention the bands they get. I swear to god every weekend it is the same: we go out trying some new band or venue, and end up crawling, with apologies to Joyce, “like the descent of our last end,” back to the Clipper every time. Clipper forgive us, for we know not what we do.