Squirrel Nut Zippers Credit: SKH Music

You wouldn’t be alone if your first response to a Squirrel Nut Zippers concert listing was to wonder, “Are they still around?” Ardent fans excepted, listeners mostly lost track of the Zippers after their late-90s heyday—but the show ain’t over yet. The Squirrel Nut Zippers formed in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in 1993 (taking their name from a brand of old-time candy) with six members, including James “Jimbo” Mathus and his wife at the time, Katharine Whalen. With the release of their sophomore album, Hot, in 1996, the band rose to fame as part of the swing-band craze of the era, along with the likes of Royal Crown Revue and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. The Zippers drew inspiration from musicians such as Cab Calloway and Tom Waits, and they also distinguished themselves by crossing genres (sometimes adding elements of calypso or klezmer) and turning their videos and freewheeling live sets into mesmerizing spectacles. Hot went platinum, and its catchy lead single “Hell” brought the band appearances on late-night shows, regular play on MTV, and invitations to perform at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta and at President Clinton’s 1997 inaugural ball. But the Zippers’ subsequent albums didn’t chart nearly as well, and by the end of the decade interest in swing music had largely fizzled out. Over the next few years things got messy: Mathus and Whalen divorced and band members ended up mired in arbitration over royalties. Eventually Whalen went on to a solo career, Mathus collaborated with musicians such as Buddy Guy, Luther Dickinson, and Alvin Youngblood Hart, and the rest of the band scattered (though some original members, including Mathus and Whalen, reunited in 2007 for a tour and live album before going on hiatus again). For the 20th anniversary of Hot in 2016, Mathus, who now lives in Mississippi, revived the Squirrel Nut Zippers with a slew of new faces from New Orleans but the same carnivalesque approach, and in 2018 the band released the album Beasts of Burgundy (Southern Broadcasting). Beasts is a stew of horns, fiddles, upright bass, banjo, blues guitar, and piano, weaving in Dixieland, swing, vaudeville, blues, and other styles, with more than a nod to the Crescent City. But the band’s music really needs to be heard live to be appreciated; their shows are equal parts burlesque, performance art, and circus, with Mathus as ringleader of a nine-person lineup that occasionally strolls through the audience like a second line—it’s like being transported to Congo Square by a bunch of carnies.   v