Home Live Review Live Review: Hot Club of Cowtown @ Jammin’ Java — 3/25/24

Live Review: Hot Club of Cowtown @ Jammin’ Java — 3/25/24

Live Review: Hot Club of Cowtown @ Jammin’ Java — 3/25/24
Hot Club of Cowtown perform at Jammin' Java on March 25, 2024. (Photo by James Todd Miller)

Eclectic might be the best way to describe the Hot Club of Cowtown and their recent set at Jammin’ Java. The trio played a mix of covers ranging from traditional folk (the Scottish “Loch Lomond”) to jazz classics (Ella Fitzgerald’s “Exactly Like You”), Western swing (Bob Wills’s “My Confession”), and country tunes (Merle Travis’s “Kentucky Means Paradise”), in addition to their original songs.

At the heart of Hot Club is their dazzling musicianship. It’s been 30 years since guitarist Whit Smith and fiddler Elana James first began playing together. In that time, they’ve earned critical praise and fans like Bob Dylan — they were supposed to open for him before the pandemic shut things down in 2020, and James played in his band for a year in the aughts.

The humor in their original songs really contributed to the sense of good cheer at this Jammin’ Java show on March 25. James’s “Near Mrs.” chronicles her dating misadventures over some 25 years, a catalog a ne’er-do-wells and maladjusted manchildren. The line about the guy whose mother still paid his rent stuck with me. As someone still single and dating as he enters middle age, I found this one particularly relatable. I relate both to Elana, facing the parade of schmucks she has dealt with, but I am also, almost certainly, a schmuck myself. 

Stillman’s “Caveman” was inspired by Werner Herzog’s documentary about prehistoric cave paintings in France, Cave of Forgotten Dreams. (It’s a visually spectacular film, and well worth seeing if you’re not already hip to it.) Whit go to thinking, “What if all these paintings were by the same guy? What if having him paint your cave was a marker of status?” That is to say, it imagines a sort of prehistoric version of Banksy, the graffiti artist whose work has become celebrated in cultural circles.

The Hot Club combines a whole melange of influences from around the world in their music, including the so-called “Gypsy jazz” of Django Reinhardt. “Amari Szi Amari,” sung by Elana, is in the Roma language, and tells the story of a woman who is “so beautiful that they kill her.” The inclusion of Les Paul and Mary Ford’s “How High The Moon” was a welcome surprise.

In lesser hands, some of these songs, like “I’m An Old Cowhand” and “Hoedown Lowdown” might be hokey, but not when they’re played by the Hot Club. They have the chops and the sensibility to pull off songs like Marty Robbins’s “Doggone Cowboy” and their original instrumental, “Heart of Romain;” it takes special people to pull off a pun about lettuce. (Certain vegetables, like eggplant, are inherently funny, but not lettuce.)

Watch Hot Club of Cowhand perform “I’m an Old Cowhand” on YouTube:

Some of the songs tackle somewhat esoteric subject matter, like “Rodeo Blues,” a paean to the pickup man — that’s the guy who runs in and rescues people after they’ve been bucked off a bronco.

Other songs  included “Little Green Valley” (another Robbins cover), “Autumn Leaves” (a Nat King Cole number), “Along the Navajo Trail,” and “Bonaparte’s Retreat.” This was an intimate show, and a couple of those were requests the band invited from the audience. They finished their set with the bluegrass instrumental “Orange Blossom Special.”

After their set, the band came out and mixed with the crowd. There were old friends and family, and it was a joyful, laid-back atmosphere. I got the chance to ask Elana where Cowtown is, and she replied, “It’s a Cowtown of the imagination,” which is the very best kind!

Here are some photos of Hot Club of Cowtown performing at Jammin’ Java on March 25, 2024. All pictures copycight and courtesy of James Todd Miller.






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