Squirrel Nut Zippers

Schubas, April 27

By Frank Youngwerth

James “Jimbo” Mathus puts across 1920s-style hot jazz as if he discovered it not through some digitally remastered, historically annotated CD reissue, but rather by being hit over the head and knocked unconscious with a bottle of bathtub gin, physically absorbing the impact of the music played at speakeasies and roadhouses where hooch was served. Mathus’s seven-piece band, the Squirrel Nut Zippers, draw on the frantic energy of “nut jazz,” a novelty style that predated Prohibition, evolving in Chicago 80 years ago when white musicians were brought up from New Orleans to entertain in Loop and south-side nightclubs. But nobody in the packed back room at Schubas last Saturday seemed to care much about the historical background of the band’s style, least of all the Squirrel Nut Zippers, who began the set in black tie but quickly loosened up to create a rough-and-ready atmosphere. Rather than treat their antique sound like a museum piece, the Squirrel Nut Zippers suggest it’s a natural extension of their eccentric southern personality.

Resembling Shane MacGowan and prone to gesticulating, Mathus directs the proceedings, sings a nasal lead, and slings an electric guitar like a rockabilly cat, taking the occasional turn on horns. To his left, Katherine Whalen sashays about in a long white dress a la Natalie Merchant (without taking herself nearly so seriously). She strums a banjo emblazoned with her initials when she feels like it and contributes percussion and vocals. Her rasping, squeaky voice has drawn comparisons to Billie Holiday, but Whalen’s role in the group is more like Grace Slick’s in the early Jefferson Airplane: she stands out in contrast to the rest of the band, but hardly dominates. Whalen delivers the chestnut “You’re Driving Me Crazy” with charming hand gestures and an obvious affinity for the material, yet reveals surprising musical limitations by talking instead of singing the song’s somewhat tricky bridge.

Squirrel Nut Zippers perform mostly their own material and so can claim they’re more an atypical indie band than moldy fig revivalists. But taking this approach inevitably leads them astray. Kicking off with “Bad Businessman” from their second album on the Mammoth label, Hot (due out June 4), the band established a hard-swinging groove and carried it through for a while, taking occasional bluesy detours for “Danny Diamond” and “It Ain’t You.” They eased up for the silly, ragtimey “Prince Nez,” featuring some nice Hawaiian-style slide guitar. But the songs tend to lack variety and substance. More than a little of Saturday’s 90-minute set felt like indistinct filler, with the band losing direction and about to run out of gas, only to be saved at the last minute with an energetic burst from trumpeter Je Widenhouse.

“Twilight” starts with a quote from the 1927 jazz ballad classic “Singin’ the Blues” by Bix Beiderbecke and Frankie Trumbauer, setting a languorous mood. Meandering solos featuring guitar and baritone sax are punctuated by Mathus and Tom Maxwell’s soft harmonizing on unfocused, impressionistic lyrics (“You come to me at twilight / The soft summer breeze, the sand, the waving hair / But how am I to know? / This feeling has no name”). Despite its interesting 15-bar structure, the song threatens to drift off to sleep. Yet a fiery rendition of the 20s standard “I’ve Found a New Baby” hinted that a few more well-chosen Tin Pan Alley covers could solve their shortage of good material.

Anyone who left before the last encore, though, missed the best moment of the night. “Got My Own Thing Now” might be Mathus’s most autobiographical song, with lyrics about growing up and forming an identity, guided and inspired by the hot music first heard in his youth. As a rousing Dixieland finale, it succeeds where Wynton Marsalis has failed with his recent Lincoln Center programs devoted to authentically recapturing in performance the excitement of jazz in its earliest stages of development. Marsalis’s academic approach calls on today’s state-of-the-art players to somehow unlearn much of what they’ve been taught and perfected through years of practice in order to arrive at the less refined level of the early masters like Buddy Bolden and King Oliver. What Marsalis gets in the end is transparently condescending.

Squirrel Nut Zippers’ energetic punk-rock approach, mixing elements of southern peculiarity, vaudeville showmanship, and personal enthusiasm, captures the music’s heart and spirit, riding atop an infectious dance beat, giving Chicago a real taste of what it sounded like back in the Jazz Age.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Roger Manley.