Knowing that you’re going to a show with the intent to review is an interesting experience. It’s not something I do all that often - I usually preview or interview or actually put the show together.
I spent some time before the Squirrel Nut Zippers’almost hour and forty-minute set thinking about how I might write about the trappings of nostalgia, or the idea of theatrics and persona and the possibility of deception - that it was all a schtick. And this would have been a valid angle considering the bands’ very specific aesthetic, both sonic and visual.
Squirrel Nut Zippers borrowed heavily - actually, exclusively - from the sounds of the 1920’s and 30’s jazz, swing, and big band and mixed it with dirty New Orleans voodoo and Caribbean calypso and their own variation on swooning male and female fronted ballads. Sometimes haunting, sometimes bizarre, often brilliant, they saw their popularity peak in the late 90’s and early 00’s.
Frankly, how they ever saw any kind of success is still kind of baffling - that odd Swing revival of the late 90’s was such a weird period in our collective music listening hive mind that I still have a hard time believing it happened. Squirrel Nut Zippers were a band out of time if there ever was one. Twice, really.
Of course, with any band that’s seen a modicum of success, there’s also the challenge of separating what they were at the height of their success from what they are now. Not to mention the whole icky “cash grab” aspect of a band preying on all of the above. Is there staying power to be found in this kind of kitsch and intentional weirdness, in the untimely creation of anachronistic and theatrically inclined music?
As soon as the lights went low and a bass drum thrummed offstage, I let all those thoughts go. And my experience was better for it.
Can I get an amen?
Touring on their latest, Beasts of Burgundy, the revitalized revival band energetically launched into one of the new albums’ first tracks. The set, then, turned into a perfectly balanced quasi-Vaudevillian act of lovingly performed and unironically crafted tunes that felt both sincere and tongue-in-cheek - a truly delicate balancing act. Consisting of original band member and composer Jimbo Mathus and a cavalcade of incredibly talented musicians, this was a band hellbent on creating a lively and invigorating live show. Vocalist Tamara A. Korn was a joy to both listen to and watch, performing older tracks once fronted by Katherine Whalen. Without a doubt, though, Dr. Sick was one of the most singularly fascinating characters and performers I’ve ever seen on stage. Bouncing unflinchingly between fiddle, guitar, banjo, ukulele, bass drum, and a saw blade (yes, a saw blade), I was mesmerized by his flamboyantly odd stage presence. I was also impressed by his overall dexterity - his high kicks were as impressive as his talent at any number of musical instruments.
First and foremost - Squirrel Nut Zippers wanted to entertain. Secondarily, maybe - give ‘em what they paid for and play what they want to hear.
In the afterlife…
“Hell” was their unlikely breakout, a dark number about getting fitted with a suit of eternal flame and spending eternity in damnation. I had wondered if they would play it, since the vocalist who performed it originally, Tom Maxwell, had parted ways with the band well over a decade ago. My question was answered about two-thirds of the way through their set, as the lights turned red, Jimbo let his hair down, Tamara A. Corn returned to the stage in a red sequin dress (she would disappear after each of her vocal performances, returning in a new outfit), and Dr. Sick grabbed the ukulele and started strumming a familiar intro. They knew their fans wanted to hear it, and it was performed with unabashed reverence for the success it wrought and sincere appreciation for the fans it placed before them. This may have been the performance everyone was waiting for, but for me it was quickly upstaged by what they followed it up with. “The Ghost of Stephen Foster,” which is personal favorite of mine (and I’ll also go one step further and say that a) Perennial Favoritesis a better album than Hot), was the one song I had hoped to hear, and I’m happy I walked out of The Southgate House Revival having witnessed it live, almost 20 years after its release.
Between mini-sets of songs that oscillated between frenetic, “peppy” tunes, and more somber ballads, Mathus told humorous stories and terrible jokes, and remained, throughout, truly humbled and appreciative of the experience. As much as I couldn’t imagine seeing the Squirrel Nut Zippers live, in an old church in Kentucky, 20 years after they emerged as the least commercially viable band amongst the likes of Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and (sigh) Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, I can’t imagine what that must feel like for Mathus himself, who has actually lived through it all.
An often-overlooked album in their ouvre, I revisit Christmas Caravanduring the holidays every year with my family. It’s my wife’s favorite time of year, but not mine. Having an album like Christmas Caravanto share enthusiastically, then, is something of a Christmas miracle. And I think that says something to the staying power - however fleeting the interest might have been for most - of Squirrel Nut Zippers.
Getting to purposely revisit their back catalog and get to know the band’s newest iteration through their latest release has been… nice. Like catching up with old friends. If they keep touring, putting out music, and simply being Squirrel Nut Zippers, I’ll be there to say hello, ask how they’re doing, and enjoy the show.
Their performance at The Southgate House Revival was a great opportunity to do that, and something I genuinely look forward to experiencing as often as I’m able.