Cherry Poppin' Daddies at the Hamilton

Stalwart swing revivalists Cherry Poppin' Daddies perform at the Hamilton in DC. Photo: Cherry Poppin' Daddies

WASHINGTON, September 12, 2013 — The Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, who appeared here recently at the Hamilton, are best known for being a part of the swing revival movement in the mid ‘90s. For a brief period of time when punk and ska were replacing grunge as the most popular brand of pop/rock, joining in on the fun were a bunch of bands intent on bringing back a style of music that was originally hip in the 1940s.

Back in those days, people dressed nicely and liked to get on the dance floor and cut the rug energetically. Primarily playing their hit “Zoot Suit Riot,” the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies were at the center of this oddball revival, even if it was only for a brief era.

It’s hard to clearly explain how utterly baffling this retro-revival was at the time because it was really quite brief and its influence was generally marginal at best. Musical fads that are here today and gone tomorrow aren’t exactly a novelty. But the level of involvement it took to be invested in that brief swing revival was something truly unique. It’s why people still remember the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, and it’s why people showed up to the Hamilton to catch a band they probably hadn’t thought about seriously in over a decade.

That said, this band did get a lot of airplay way back when to the point where their sound – or at least “Zoot Suit Riot” – became a lot more pervasive than many people may realize. Today, audiences might not distinctly remember the band when someone mentions their name. But play that signature song and the scene will flash by in a burst of instant recognition. Whether you regard it as a momentary fad or not, swing has an unmistakable sound and style, and that’s what the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies flaunted at every turn.

Swing revival might have seemed gimmicky, but it clearly wasn’t a fad to the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies. While most of their contemporaries disappeared when the genre’s mainstream success quickly faded, the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies kept plugging away, and they’ve been continuously active for 20 years at this point.

The reason? The Cherry Poppin’ Daddies have always been this kind of band. Swing is in their genes. That their quirky revival genre became popular for at least a brief time simply enabled them to capitalize on something they apparently wanted to do anyway, which proved to be a lucky bonus. Even if they had never garnered any sort of mainstream success, it’s clear they would have still been playing the same music and would most likely still be touring to this day. That’s vision and consistency for you.

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But it’s precisely this that makes the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies a fun and vital band to witness live.  For one, they’re not trying cash in on past success. They even have a new album out entitled White Teeth, Black Thoughts. This isn’t a band that’s trying to capture any new success either. Instead, they are the very definition of a working band. Playing swing music is what they do and they clearly like playing it, and their energy on stage is infectious.

The big band aesthetics of swing music naturally lends itself to this kind of energy.  Everything the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies play is a dance song, but these dance songs are meant for people who want to move as fast and as freely as they possibly can. When the horn section kicks in, it’s ideal for someone to find a partner and move in tandem until either the song stops or the couple run out of steam. This isn’t the kind of band that slows down for anyone.

This theme plays a larger role in front man Steve Perry’s lyrics, which are often vaguely dark in stark contrast to the upbeat styling of the Daddies’ big band extravagance. But it’s this kind of slightly edgy, contemporary juxtaposition that gives them their depth.

Ultimately though, the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies seem to be most concerned with getting the audience moving. Indeed, it was always difficult to stay still while watching the band play through their two sets at the Hamilton. This is a band that will never settle for going through the motions on stage if no one is having fun or getting worked up from song to song.

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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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