Hot Club of Cowtown fires up The Linda with swing
By Greg Haymes, Special to the Times Union
Published 12:01 a.m., Friday, April 1, 2011

ALBANY — Country music that swings? Jazz with a twang? When the high-flying Austin trio Hot Club of Cowtown ambled into the spotlight Wednesday night at WAMC’s Performing Arts Studio, the nearly sold-out crowd was captivated from the opening notes of the zippy “She’s Killing Me.”

As the band name indicates, the trio walks the line between the Gypsy jazz of Django Reinhardt’s Quintette du Hot Club de France and the western swing of Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys. On Wednesday, they leaned more heavily toward the Bob Wills side — no surprise, considering their new album, “What Makes Bob Holler,” is a tribute to Wills and his magical music.

In the realm of western swing, the fiddle is king. And on stage, fiddler Elana James was queen. Whether she was singing the Bob Wills gem “What’s the Matter With the Mill,” sawing through her bow hairs on the bluegrass warhorse “Orange Blossom Special” or crooning an old Rodgers and Hart nugget like “You Took Advantage of Me,” James was the focal point of the band, both musically and visually.

That’s not to take anything away from Whit Smith, who spun marvelously inventive leads on his big old, f-hole, hollowbody guitar and sang lead on most of the band’s selections. His turn on “The Devil Ain’t Lazy” was masterful, as the band wove Cab Calloway-like jump ‘n’ jive with gospelesque call and response. He was just as commanding with his own woozy, late-night-creeping ballad “When I Lost You.”

And, to be honest, the real secret weapon of the band is bassist Jake Erwin, who pummeled away at his big stand-up acoustic like a man possessed. Like any good slap-bassist — and he’s one of the best — he plays the role of both bassist and drummer with his percussive slapping and snapping of the strings. And while his lone lead vocal turn at the microphone on “Sweet Jenny Lee” certainly wasn’t about to win him any awards, he at least held his own.

Although they never did get around to playing any Django tunes, they captured the darkly romantic edge of Gypsy jazz with a pair of flashy instrumentals: “Tchavolo Swing” and “Dark Eyes.” They ripped up some old-time fiddle tunes, too, including “Sally Goodin” and the hot-wired hoedown of “The Acorn Hill Breakdown.” And while most of the show centered around a jaunty, big bounce dance tempo, they could play sweet and slow, too, as they proved with a heavenly rendition of the Hoagy Carmichael classic, “Stardust.”