Big Bad Voodoo Daddy Brings A Different Kind Of Cool To Club Congress.
By Danny Gellert
BIG BAD VOODOO Daddy is playing. They play a lot of places these days, and where they play, places like the Backstage in Santa Barbara, Nicholby's in Ventura, the Brown Derby in Los Angeles and Club Congress right here in Tucson this weekend, people, a lot of people, come to swing, to enjoy themselves, to dance.
But back in 1994 they were playing at the Viper Room for the first time. The Viper Room is actor Johnny Depp's club. The Viper Room is just off Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. The Viper Room is the place in front of which River Phoenix keeled over and died after ingesting a drug smorgasbord back in '93. The Viper Room is full of people who pride themselves on the public display of their tattoos, piercings, and black leather accessories.
When the Viper Room crowd found themselves face to face with Ventura's kings of swing for the first time, nobody moved. They were all twitching slightly, like they wanted to, but nobody clapped. Of course, these are the kind of people who, when faced with their own bands, the ones that sing about depression, violence, and self-mutilation, don't move a hell of a lot. They don't even dance. Oh, they'll occasionally slam up against one another, but only if the band, who usually looks just like the people they are playing for, is really good. When they are watching a zoot-suited band with wide-brimmed hats, who carry watches rather than wallets on the ends of the chains attached to their belt loops, the effect is near total seizure.
This doesn't go down easily with the band. Scotty Morris, who, in addition to being front man for Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, knows the common foot-moving, body-shaking, smile-inducing effect his band's music commonly has on a roomful of clubgoers, was prompted to say something. What he said was something along the lines of, when you're faced with a zoot-suit-wearing, three-horn-blowing, old-school jump-swing music-playing little big band, it is okay to express the fact that you are, for the moment, enjoying yourself.
Even if your name is Razor you have a chunk of metal the size of a crowbar pierced through your left side. Because that's the crossover appeal that Big Bad Voodoo Daddy has earned as journeyman musicians over the past five years. In earning this appeal, they've also achieved a different kind of cool. A cool that is defined by confidence rather than ego. Their kind of cool is going out and hitting the audience between the eyes with something that, while familiar and accessible, is probably very new to them. It is the kind of cool that revels in its own expression. To Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, the cool is the expression of their love for the music of the '40s and early '50s, backed up by confidence in their own well-practiced musicianship.
And you know what? It worked. Five minutes later, every pierced and tattooed black leatherness was out on the floor, moving.
BIG BAD VOODOO Daddy is running. Whether they are running toward the hepcat, jumpin' jive, swinging past that their music evokes, or toward the post-alternative future of rock and roll, where a band with meticulous costuming, a crack horn section, and a refreshingly upbeat attitude would presumably be welcome, is up for discussion.
The past inhabited by BBVD is a place somewhere after World War II, where pop music is more dance-oriented and dominated by big bands, swing bands, Blue Note jazz, blues, jump. The radio is full of names like Louis Jordan, Benny Goodman, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington and a blanket of boogie and blues all waiting for the car crash in the middle of the crossroads so that it can bleed together into rock and roll.
The love of this pre-crash past is what brought the guys in Big Bad Voodoo Daddy--vocalist/guitarist Scotty Morris, saxist Andy Rowley, bassist Dirk Shumaker, drummer Kurt Sodergren, trombonist Jeff Harris, and trumpeter Glen Marhevka--together.
The future may be a place where independent bands like BBVD and their counterparts in groups like Royal Crown Revue, the Brian Setzer Orchestra, and the Squirrel Nut Zippers can find the wide audience this style of music once had. The band has sold between 8,000 and 12,000 copies of their two CDs, 1994's Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and last year's holiday EP, Whatchu' Want for Christmas? Explanations of such success creep too easily toward the notion that their sound is nothing more than nostalgia for postwar pre-rock. Just because it's old, however, doesn't mean it's dead. Instead, the Big Bad Voodoo Daddy sound is a mix of styles so rich it might be a needle in the side of alternative music as it hurtles toward predictability. Not that what these bands are doing is going to overthrow the new world order, but they insist that alternative isn't the only cutting-edge pop being made these days.
"I like to think of us as having five different sounds," Morris says, before noting that neither he nor the rest of the band is exclusive when it comes to music listening. To prove his point, he offers a guided tour through the band's two albums. "Cruel Spell" from the first album is their cool jazz, Miles Davis/Chet Baker song; "You and Me and the Bottle Makes 3 Tonight (Baby!)" and "Go Daddy-O," both from the Christmas album, are the band's old-style, Louis Jordan, jumping swing songs; "Beggar's Blues" from the first album and the live "Minnie the Moocher" represent their New Orleansy, Cab Calloway leanings. From here, the lines blur.
He likes to call the fourth style Mambo, but admits that he can't say it matches up exactly. "It's just kind of wide-open, full bore, made-to-do-nothing-but-have-a-good-time kind of music." Even though this describes 99 percent of what the band does, in this case he's talking about songs like the live "Mambo Swing" and, from the Christmas album, their take on Disney's Jungle Book song, "I Wanna Be Just Like You (the Monkey Song)."
But it's the opening cut on Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, "Jumpin' Jack," that sets the tone for what the band is: a wild, nontraditional, '90s swing combo. "Jumpin' Jack" starts slowly, with a far-off, oncoming train whistle, before railroading itself through in a wash of danceable drum beats, modern yet familiar horn arrangements, and a call and respond scat section that, live, pulls the whole audience together.
Taken as a whole, Morris admits, "It's a lot of pie to choose from."
"There's so much depth to explore in any one of those styles," adds Shumaker. "Just with the mambos, there's bossa novas and all these really cool Latin beats." Shumaker is excited, like everybody in this band, about all the possibilities their music conjures. They are nothing if not cool, anything but traditional. Ultimately, though, it's the places where the lines are the blurriest that Big Bad Voodoo Daddy is trying to get to.
And the place they want to get to is the Ellington/Waits area, which Morris and Sodergren initially staked out. When the band began, this aspiration was a little out of reach. As far as they're concerned, they've played it pretty straight so far, molding their sound into a bubbling set of fun swing numbers, which they plan to keep on writing and playing.
"As time goes on," says Morris of his more abstract leanings, "a lot more stuff will start coming out. Every once in awhile, I'm going to throw something in there that gives a little bit of credibility to the art, and homage to the dudes I respect and dig. That would definitely be Tom Waits."
The crowds come out to see the band because the band never forgets that, when they're onstage, they exist for the crowd. As a result, there are more than 1,000 names on their mailing list; there are people who follow them all over the state and as far as New York and Detroit just to show their support; and mostly there are people who won't or can't stop dancing until the last note of the set fades out.
That their music has a very broad appeal has a lot to do with it. It's the kind of music that young hipsters can dress retro and dance to; it's the kind of music that reminds senior citizens what a night out sounded like when they were young; it's the kind of music that parents dance their children around the living room to.
But you have to see the band live to really understand where it's coming from. Whereas most bands are content to come out and play their songs, BBVD isn't satisfied until they've entertained you, until you leave their show smiling, humming one of their tunes, and feeling like you got your money's worth.
"We figure that if you're going out, you want to see a show," Rowley says. "We want to make it a memorable night."
Big Bad Voodoo Daddy will perform on Friday, March 7, at Club Congress, 311 E. Congress St. Opening the show will be The Fraidy Cats and Phonoroyale. Tickets are $5. For more information call 622-8848.
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