No Surf Music


No Surf Vinyl Essentials


The Lowdown:

Hot Club of Cowtown

Jake Erwin (bass/vocals), Elana James (violin/vocals), Whit Smith (guitar/vocals)

Based In:
Austin, TX


Americana, Western swing, jazz, folk, gypsy music


Nighttown, Cleveland Heights, Ohio

Concert Date:


Related Articles:

Hot Club of Cowtown perform at Nighttown in Cleveland Heights, Ohio

Rating: 7 out of 10



June 20, 2011


Hot Club of Cowtown: Nighttown, 6/15/11

by Jason D. 'Diesel' Hamad


Hot Club of Cowtown performs at Nighttown in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. (l-r) Elana James, Whit Smith, Jake Erwin. Photo by Jason D. 'Diesel' Hamad, No Surf Music.


What the hell am I doing going to a jazz club? This was the first thought I had as I pulled up to Nighttown in Cleveland Heights. Not that I mind jazz (I used to play a very lousy jazz trombone, in fact), but I was going to see a Western swing band. Sure “swing” and “jazz” go together like “Texas” and “steers,” but when I think of the genre, I think of high-energy hoedown action more suitable to a hay-filled barn or seedy bar than a martini-serving jazz joint. But as Hot Club of Cowtown took the stage and moved through their set, it began to make sense. Hot Club is not your typical Western swing band.

As Whit Smith, the band’s guitar player, noted after the show, “Back in the 30’s and 40’s, jazz was popular music. That’s what people listened to. So this kind of music came about through the old Western bands trying to be contemporary. And what was contemporary was Django Reinhardt and Count Bassie.” This blend is reflected in the band’s name, “Hot Club” a reference to Reinhardt’s band “Hot Club of Paris” and “Cowtown” coming from Western swing legend Bob Wills, whose music formed the basis for the group’s most recent release, What Makes Bob Holler (see the No Surf Review here).

The folks up on stage weren't the only ones having fun at Nighttown that evening. Photo by Jason D. 'Diesel' Hamad, No Surf Music.

But while most Western swing groups have perhaps a 70/30 or even 80/20 blend of Western to jazz influences, Hot Club of Cowtown is split pretty much straight down the middle. What they do take from Western tradition tends to be from the more relaxed side of the genre rather than the foot-stompin’ portion, giving them a slightly more subdued feel than some other groups. They lack the pure energy of Asleep at the Wheel or even Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, yet they retain that characteristic Western swing sprightliness and their show is peppered with high-energy solos from all three members. They eschew Stetsons and pearl buttons, the men on this occasion sporting solid-color collared shirts and slacks while violinist Elana James went with a rather cute floral-print dress, complimented by a great big smile. With only a three-piece ensemble, the group also has a simpler sound than many of their bigger-band cousins, which often feature keyboards, pedal steel and other instruments. They make up for a lack in instrumental quantity with an abundance of quality. All of this combines to make the band perfectly suited to a more reserved jazz club environment, and since this was the band’s third time performing at Nighttown, it’s evidently a good match.

Nighttown itself is a Cleveland institution. Founded in 1965 and named after Dublin’s red light district as portrayed in James Joyce’s Ulysses, it is certainly more up-scale than most of the establishments No Surf frequents. It features a fine whiskey selection with a number of small-batch bourbons and single-malt scotches, as well as an extensive wine list and a number of signature martinis, all named for either James Joyce references or jazz musicians. As for the food—which is highly touted—the menu is heavy on ribs, steak and seafood, with entrees in the twenty-dollar range. In lieu of my usual show-time PBR tallboy I went with a Ulysses (Jameson, Frangelica and Bailey’s) with coffee—hoping the caffeine would perk me up after an all-night writing session—and was quite pleased with the results.

The stage is set up in a seated dining arrangement, with patrons clustered around tables to the front and in two wings off to either side. There are two bars back-to-back at the front of the building as well as a separate dining area for those less interested in the music. The walls are lined with an eclectic mix consisting of old movie posters, advertising signs, a large vintage tribute to the 1948 World Champion Indians team, a stag’s head, and even a stuffed chicken hanging from the ceiling. This is accompanied by an airplane model designed by Viktor Schreckengost, a celebrated local artist who was awarded the National Medal of Arts before his death in 2008 at the age of 101. The stage-area dining room features more traditional art.

Elana James and Whit Smith formed the core of the band in the late 90's. Photo by Jason D. 'Diesel' Hamad, No Surf Music.

As for the Hot Club of Cowtown themselves, the band first formed in 1998. Whit and Elana originally linked up in New York City via a classified ad in the Village Voice.

“Alana was the first person I ever met with a passion for Western, gypsy music and jazz,” said Whit. Once they started playing together, they relocated first to California and then to Austin, Texas, where they added bass player Jake Erwin. “He fit and all the pieces were in place,” Whit continued. “With this kind of music, you’ve just got to stick it in your head and make it your own.” Because of their shared musical interests “we just decided to be a western swing band and not a rock band. But we live more like a rock ‘n roll band than a jazz band. This is the kind of music that needs maintenance. It needs practice to keep it sharp. But we’re in a van all day, touring all the time.”

This is a point well taken, but however they do it, there’s no doubt that the band is spot on. Through two hour-plus sets that featured a balanced array of both standards and their own materiel, they proved that they are more than just a Western swing band and that all three members are talented musicians. Elana’s voice is sweet and her fiddling ranges from inspiringly beauteous to just plain foot-stompin’, ass-kickin’ inspired. Whit’s guitar is a throwback, his solos often reminiscent of classic Sun Records’ rockabilly but blending perfectly into the music’s jazzier moments. And while he spends much of his time in the background keeping the beat, Jake’s breakouts are screamingly powerful in the vein of the best jazz solo traditions.

Several of the night’s selections were classic Bob Wills tunes featured on their most recent record, but which the band has been playing live for years. These included “Stay All Night (Stay a Little Longer)”, “She’s Killin’ Me,” and “Big Balls in Cowtown,” which closed out the first set on an undeniable high note with its three-part harmonies, great beat on the standup bass, and fine fiddle action. The high-energy rendition had the whole crowd clapping along.

Other highlights included Whit’s rendition of Johnny Mercer’s “I'm an Old Cow Hand (from the Rio Grande)”—first made famous by Bing Crosby—and a swinging take on the great old traditional “Columbus Stockade Blues.” Jake took lead singing duties on only one song, but it was a barnburner, “Sweet Jenny Lee.” For her part, Elana’s leads were more toned down, such as in the standard “’Deed I Do” or her own dreamy, surreal, and breathy “Cabiria.” Several of Whit’s numbers were also less-than-frenetic but no less perfectly executed, such as the classic “Pennies From Heaven.” The set was tied together by a number of instrumentals, such as the standard “Stardust,” the gypsy songs “Dark Eyes” and “Tchavolo Swing,” and the Southern fiddle classic “Orange Blossom Special,” which closed out the second set and brought the whole crowd to its feet. The encore was sealed by a rollicking version of folk favorite “(Get Along Home) Cindy,” a high-energy ending that easily coaxed another ovation from the fans.

See now, that's the smile I was talking about. Elana wasn't the only one sporting a grin during the show. Photo by Jason D. 'Diesel' Hamad, No Surf Music.

“It was a great crowd,” Elana said afterward.

“Nobody left after the break,” smiled Whit. “I’d say that makes it an awesome crowd. They seemed very appreciative.”

From the other side of the Kleig lights, I can attest that everyone seemed to enjoy the music quite well. Several newcomers who just happened to be at the bar came up to ask me about the band, gaining them new adherents among the crowd.

All in all, it was an entertaining show, in fact better than expected. With an often more sedate sound than some other Western swing bands, Hot Club of Cowtown’s albums don’t always convey the energy and musicianship that is instantly evident in their live performance. But having seen them in person I now understand what they’re going for much more clearly. If you expect a Bob Wills copycat you’ll be disappointed—Hot Club definitely has its own vision and its own unique blend of the new and the classic—but if you like Western swing, they are well worth checking out.

Click here for more pics!


For a taste of Hot Club of Cowtown, buy What Makes Bob Holler on Amazon!
mp3 cd


No Pop. No Crap. No Surf.