As 20-somethings, I remember we used to have stoned-out conversations about feeling sorry for people who lived before rock ‘n’ roll was invented in the 1950s. In our naivety, we just couldn’t fathom a life without the singular joyous essence that only rock ‘n’ roll could provide and provoke. Little did we know at the time that swing was the thing and that same go-crazy aesthetic could be similarly applied to such.
Enter Big Bad Voodoo Daddy.
It’s hard to believe but this incredible progressive swing band still has its seven original members since its inception 20 years ago. Their Rattle Them Bones CD was one of the best discs of any genre released in 2012 and their live show is…well, heaven on earth.
Back yet again at the Musikfest Café in Bethlehem, PA (the gorgeous venue where the artists all ooh and ahh at the campus itself, many acres with outdoor stages, comedy club, restaurants, cinema and those multi-colored Steel Stacks looming as a stage backdrop from what’s left of the old Bethlehem Steel company), we take our place at the bar. Our table up front goes empty. There’s no sitting politely and eating at a Big Bad Voodoo Daddy show! After eschewing the etouffee, our nerve synapses are immediately assaulted from note number one. We’re rooted to the spot. The full-on rush of excitement and bubbling-over ecstasy is instant. Some music insinuates itself into your ears and up into your brain like a slithering snake that you feel sensually alive to the point where your feet start to move. This music just clubs you on your head into submission.
There was no going back.
Like a magnetic force pulling us close, despite the well-heeled eaters and drinkers at the tables (who must have enjoyed the music in their own meek way, right?), we gravitated towards the sound board. This board, against the wall directly opposite the stage, gives a perfect personal space in which to twitch, rhumba, shadow box and move in any way the body involuntarily orders. I have performed this St. Vitus Dance in this exact space to Bettye Lavette, Trombone Shorty, Taj Mahal, Galactica and, most recently, to the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, but never, I dare say, never, had the music taken such commanding control over what could conceivably be construed as an epileptic seizure of orgasmic dance origin.
Such is the power and the glory of this Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. Now I know why “Voodoo.” It must be voodoo. How else to explain the inexplicable? I suppose religious nutballs get the same effervescent joy as they talk in tongues or holy-roll down a hill.
The abject wizardry of Scotty Morris (vocals, guitar, banjo), Joshua Levy (piano, arrangements), Kurt Sodergren (drums), Dirk Schumaker (acoustic bass, vocals), Glen “The Kid” Marhevka (trumpet), Karl Hunter (soprano, alto and tenor saxophones plus clarinet) and Andy Rowley (baritone saxophone, vocals) is not to be denied. The secret is in the horns. When these horns all start blowing simultaneously, you might as well be dancing on Rampart Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans with a drink in each hand giving the devil his due.
Material? Oh man, they give new meaning to Randy Newman’s “It’s Lonely At The Top,” prefacing the song with a great story about how Newman, signed as a pro songwriter at 17, wrote this for Frank Sinatra who refused to record it (obviously having no sense of irony). They update Cab Calloway. Their era-spanning purview goes from the prohibition era of Boardwalk Empire to the lounge lizardry of Mad Men, stopping off in that Treme neighborhood just for fun. And yeah, they touch upon some early rock ‘n’ roll too.
I don’t feel sorry for folks born before rock anymore. I do feel bad for folks who haven’t yet seen BIG BAD VOODOO DADDY. Oh Baby! I’m smitten like a kitten in the lap of a loved one.