A night with the Squirrel Nut Zippers circa 2008 is a reunion with long-lost friends you haven’t kept in good touch with. Even if the strength of your relationship has frayed, your jokes aren’t so funny, and your collective experience might have been a tad overrated (for lack of a better frame of reference), you still mange to find those old touch points that make you realize that you should never have overanalyzed what the reunion would actually be like.
The reconstituted Zippers (back in action as of 2007) pulled into a packed and steamy Highline Ballroom, and the arc of their show (an hour-and-15-minutes that flew by) felt like the aforementioned scenario: uneasiness and forced appreciation that gave way to enjoyment, excitement, and finally, healthy nostalgia. They still have that X-factor—that inscrutable spookiness, and slightly unsettling mojo—that separates them from all the other ‘90s swing revivalists. Where Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Royal Crown Revue, and the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies are now comfortably nestled into crowds of saddle-shoe and wingtip-clad swing lovers tossing each other through the air, the Zippers will still attempt to wake the dead and then buy them a drink.
The Zippers’ appeal is in their eclecticism: they play the jitterbug-ready stuff, sure, but it’s when they’re in melding mode—mixing swampy blues, filthy rockabilly, and plenty of calypso, gypsy music, klezmer, and hot jazz—that they really tee up a crowd. It was disappointing then, that for much of the show, only guitarist James “Jimbo” Mathus—he of the mischievous, shit-eating grins and twangy licks—seemed ready to party. His bandmates, even the charismatic Katherine Whalen, were merely plangent, even cursory in their delivery at times.
Everything seemed to lock in, though, when Mathus kicked off “Good Enough for Grandad”, one of the band’s best nods to its deep roots. From then on, everything seemed to groove a bit more—the dancing sexier, the execution punchier, the solos, especially from saxophonist Will Dawson, gnarlier. Bassist Stuart Cole dug in deep for the cool and fun “Put a Lid On It” and the band finally found itself during “La Grippe”, with its good-times-in-the-midst-of-bad refrain of “Yes, we must go out tonight” that seems to both coax and admonish. Debauchery as defiance and reckless abandon heftily-packed into an ostensibly harmless swing band—yes! Where was this an hour ago when the crowd’s energy was really high?
No matter. The place was jumping by then, and the band needed only to play its biggest hit, “Hell”, to finally conquer the crowd. Unfortunately, they fell short—the transitions were sloppy and the brass and guitar fills aimless. But anyone left behind quickly re-boarded for “Ghost of Stephen Foster”. As the house and stage lights went down, a video projection came up, and the band’s Bosco-inspired cartoon of a very bad night for a young couple at a haunted house kicked into gear. It’s always been one of the Zippers’ best effects—a gimmick if you tried to describe it to anyone unfamiliar with them, but in the context of being at the show, pure insanity and delicious escapism.
Here’s hoping that these feel-things-out tours are only the start of the Zippers’ renewd upward swing. It is clear there’s a lot left in the tank, and plenty of hell to pay and bad times to lift a middle finger to.
As the men (and lady) said:
“So the doctors came on the evening train /
With their flasks and caskets and vials /
Mass psychosis was their diagnosis (yes) /
So we all cashed our checks and went wild.”