Yee-haw! Western swing, that ingenious, all-American big-band hybrid of swing-era jazz, blues, and fiddle-fueled early country music, is returning to the East Bay via the big-band badness of the legendary Lost Weekend orchestra, in support of its scorching new album Harbor Lights and Cowboy Blues. The 1930s and '40s genre -- made popular by such luminaries as Bob Wills, Spade Cooley, and Tex Williams -- has always relied on its tremendous crossover appeal to draw some of the strangest audiences, with tilt-nosed jazz snobs, swing-dancing hepcats, and rusty cowpokes tapping toes in startling and downright peculiar unison. This bizarre scene is sure to be seen this Friday at that Berkeley landmark of Americana appreciation, the Freight & Salvage.
"The Lost Weekend Western swing band celebrates its twentieth year soon, in 2004," explains the band's "fearless leader" Don Burnham. "Now how does any group hang together that long? Few seem to. I credit our successes on an uncommon fellowship of gifted players who enjoy creating and performing together. The band has endured, matured, and swings now better than ever."
Like its jazz roots, Western swing is defined by its focus on innovative arrangements and live improvisation. The band's current lineup rises to the occasion with a voracious fiddle, twin guitars, and Shota Osabe's whiskeyed honky-tonk piano. But it wouldn't be swing without a driving horn section, and Lost Weekend's brass is pretty shiny stuff, featuring trad-jazz musician Bob Schulz on cornet, Kevin Porter on trombone, and Jim Rothermel on sax and clarinet. The haunting sounds of steel guitar are provided by the renowned Bobby Black, who's previously played with Asleep at the Wheel and Commander Cody, while the rhythm section comprises bassist Bing Nathan and drummer John Brinck.
As if that weren't enough, you can add in some gorgeous Sons of the Pioneers-style harmony backing vocals, too. The spine-tingling lead vox are bounced between two stellar points. There's Burnham (who shares a similar name with Ray Milland's alcoholic main character from the band's namesake film). And then there's the dazzling Melissa Collard, who has ignited much critical praise with her velvet touch on such Duke Ellington standards as "Take the A Train" and "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," as well as her skill covering such daunting divas as Patsy Cline.
With this much talent, it's easy to see how Lost Weekend elegantly springs from a swingified fiddle jamboree to a fiery Mexican mariachi tune and back. "Our approach is really straight ahead -- no gimmicks," Burnham says. "It is a musical conversation. We try to combine all the elements and ingredients necessary: great tunes, creative arranging, tight section work, and of course, top-notch musicianship and singing. Our goal is to keep the flame burning, and carry on this great tradition." So whether you're a seasoned fan of this eclectic style, or just any ol' drifter looking for a quick cure to those urban cowboy blues, Friday night's show will provide you with an excuse to keep on going when Saturday morning's hangover kicks in -- a great song to hum until the aching goes away. 8 p.m. at the Freight, 1111 Addison Street, Berkeley. Info: TheFreight.org or 510-548-1761.
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