The Hot Club of Cowtown at Jammin Java

The swing/jazz fusion band Hot Club of Cowtown party all night at Jammin Java in Vienna, Virginia. Photo: Hot Club of Cowtown

VIENNA, Va., May 2, 2013 – Hot Club of Cowtown is rather cumbersome name to say out loud. But how does its name relate to the band’s actual live show? Every so often, a band will choose a handle that encapsulates the necessary information about the band. In this case, this band’s name seems to be a direct reference to its mutual influences from both the western and jazz musical worlds. 

Hot Club of Cowtown has the look and feel you would associate with one of the more energetic and crowd pleasing live shows around. So in a certain kind of setting it’s easy to see they could be the hottest ticket in town.  Their name aptly describes the general nature of their sound and the kind of audience they happen to attract. Their recent show at Jammin’ Java might not have been sold out, but it would’ve been hard to pack any more people into the venue than were already there.

As their name implies, the atmosphere Hot Club of Cowtown creates is something like mixing a hoedown into a speakeasy. The sound they’ve created has a distinct, almost mythic feel of prohibition-era music along with the frantic Flapper Era type of energy that distinguished that period of time from all others that had gone before it. Young people were breaking out, radically altering fashion, clothing, and lifestyles to suit their more modern, sophisticated, and liberated tastes.

Almost a century later, Hot Club of Cowtown is conjuring up some of that atmosphere in its current performances. But at the same time, they’re still playing into the audiences’ imagination. Tey do this partially by keeping the pace up-tempo as much as possible with strong dose of spontaneity added for effect. It is not all that uncommon for them to launch into a song, but then seemingly stop and go off on a new tangent. We soon discover that the original song was never abandoned, only strung out even further than initially anticipated.

The unfortunate thing about playing at Jammin’ Java, though, is that Hot Club of Cowtown is at its core a dance band that plays dance music. Whether they choose to drive the pace as fast as possible, or during the few occasions they slow things down, the band’s music is inherently insisting that the audience remain on the move at every moment. That’s somewhat at odds with this otherwise sit down style venue. But paradoxically, it’s also perfect for this band in the sense that it gives the audience the ability to mill around and almost push the band to the background.

Hot Club of Cowtown doesn’t seem to be greatly concerned with the tangible content of their songs. Violinist Elana James and guitarist Whit Smith share vocal duties, interchanging between songs but this at times almost feels like happenstance to break up instrumentals. The band is at their best when James is just going to town sawing away on his fiddle or when Jake Erwin is plucking away with impressive speed on his stand-up bass. It’s during moments like these that they clearly take on the feel of a house band, creating backdrop sound to accompany everyone’s vision of the night while random happenings unfold all around.

That’s the line Hot Club of Cowtown seem to straddle effortlessly. They seem happy in their dual identity as the band the audience wants to focus on as well as the band that’s just giving them an interesting soundtrack to provide a musical fabric for individual and group activities.  Under a different scenario, they would’ve created the perfect atmosphere for their audience to dance the night away. But under the circumstances present at Jammin’ Jave, they’re a band that can be appreciated better as artists when the finer details of their unique sound can really be heard and appreciated.


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Stephen Bradley

Stephen Bradley is an avid music listener and an occasional writer.  He grew up in the Washington DC area and has been embedded in the local music scene for years.  Currently he lives in Vienna, VA.   He enjoys bands that have been broken up for at least a decade.

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