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ALBUM REVIEW: Hot Club of Cowtown – “Wild Kingdom”

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Hot Club Of Cowtown

Hot Club of Cowtown’s blend of western swing and jazz may seem out of place on a country music website, but please bear with me as the link is strong that should appeal to anyone with a curious mind (and ear).

Eight months ago Your Life In a Song carried a review of Half A Hundred Years by Asleep At The Wheel whose roots in the western swing and honky tonk popularised by the great Bob Wills form a rich seam of country music. Many artists featured on Your Life In A Song over the years will tip their hats in that direction. Wild Kingdom undulates with that timeless western swing to which the Hot Club of Cowtown add a jazz influence that on the face of it might put off regular country music fans but those who can ignore genre categorisation could be very pleasantly surprised.

At the most superficial level anyone with a name as original as Hot Club of Cowtown deserves attention. The name blends their jazz influences, Stephane Grappelli’s group ‘Quintette du Hot Club de Paris’ with the ‘Cowtown’ western swing of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. Hot Club of Cowtown came about 25 years ago when guitarist Whit Smith answered a classified ad in New York’s Village Voice placed by vocalist and fiddle player Elana James who sought musicians who shared her interest in traditional music. The pair hit it off and after a collaboration that formed a full orchestra went in the opposite direction for the flexibility of something much smaller, a trio that has created their hallmark sound ever since. Jake Erwin keeps everything humming along on upright bass.

Much of Hot Club’s recording has been covers of the great country and swing artists. They have won awards, toured all over the world, headlining as well as with icons such as Dylan and Nelson among others. What makes Wild Kingdom special though is that for the first time since 2011 Hot Club of Cowtown has released an album of original material. Their covers are glowing tributes but they really do shine when they do their own thing.

Source of several of the new songs, Elana James frequently explores the romance of life and the relationships love creates. Her jaunty fiddle swing that introduces opener ‘My Candy’ immediately places the trio deep in a Texas roadhouse. Vocally she steps lightly into jazz as she compares her own “Bit o Honey” to a bag full of classic American confectionary. On ‘Last Call’ she harmonises with the others in a lovely piece of old time country. ‘Near Mrs.’ is a delicate whimsy of romance with many, including a very notable country star, that never quite made it to the alter with her. By now Hot Club of Cowtown have so perfectly blended western swing and jazz that referring to them as separate ingredients is pointless.

James is a master of the metaphor. Lightly she compares romance to staying in the saddle before the inevitable fall makes ‘Rodeo Blues’ such a clever song that has as its metaphorical hero, the pickup rider. ‘Tall Tall Ship’ surges along in a fresh breeze of country but who is that “tall, tall ship comin’ in for me”?

Complementing James’s romantic muses Whit Smith digs deeper into life’s mysteries. The cheery beat of ‘Caveman’ belies its sweep of time and place as he transposes paintings on the walls of caves into a view of how everything is spun today. An interesting contrast is his  soulful voice on the more familiar territory of ‘Billy The Kid’. ‘Ways of Escape’ takes that soulful tinge into a blues walking rhythm to good effect as Smith advises concentrating on the things that really matter.

Then three covers are a mixed bag. The trio’s clean, simple arrangement do full justice to ‘Three Little Words’, similarly the duet on Les Paul and Mary Ford’s ‘How High The Moon’ is a delightful piece of pure jazz. But ‘Loch Lomond’ just feels out of place here, perhaps the traditional folk is too great a leap.

But overall Wild Kingdom is beautifully crafted. Paying equal tribute to western swing and jazz, Hot Club of Cowtown stamp their own indelible mark that should please any country fan interested in discovering more about the origins of their music.

Lyndon Bolton

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