The Hot Club of Cowtown first came to Ann Arbor from their home base of Austin in 1998. As the name suggests, the trio (fiddle, guitar, and bass) combined gypsy jazz with the 1930s Texas country-jazz fusion now known as Western swing, and they were fabulous. There’ve been swing revivalists of various kinds who’ve equaled them technically, but few in whose hands the music seemed so alive and contemporary. At the center of the sound were, and are, the fiddle of Elana James and the guitar of Whit Smith. Their sparkling instrumental repartee seemed to have the element of competition that’s been central to good jazz from the beginning.
The group released several more albums, appeared on A Prairie Home Companion and at Britain’s giant Glastonbury festival, and generally got better and better. Then, as so often happens with young roots musicians who master an old style completely but don’t know where to take it next, they split up. Smith and James formed their own trios, and James spent an eventful several months touring with Bob Dylan. That could easily have been the end of the Hot Club of Cowtown, but they had a level of musical imagination, and perhaps a way of taking the music personally, that brought them back together and made them try to go beyond what they had done before.
That involved stepping onto revivalist music’s edge, a narrow space between music that’s frozen in time and music that loses its connection with the things it’s reviving. Their new album, Wishful Thinking, takes risks and makes a consistently intriguing attempt to walk that line. Pure Western swing instrumentals bump up against original songs (some with drums, the first time the group has used them) that go beyond the romantic conventions current when these styles were young. James contributes a song about a high school reunion and one inspired by Federico Fellini’s film Nights of Cabiria, pushing the boundaries of what the listener might expect from the band.
Several of the new songs deal with the complications of long-term on-and-off relationships, and they naturally lead the listener to speculate as to what degree they reflect the personal factors behind the band’s ups and downs. But it really doesn’t matter what those might be–the important thing is that James and Smith have found new resonances in old styles, and in so doing have created music that doesn’t sound exactly like anything else out there. And, James says, “Bob Dylan taught me that you have to keep some mystery. Don’t give it all away.”
Elana James has relatives in this area, so the Hot Club of Cowtown generally brings it’s A game when they play here. Their return to the Ark with their new music, on September 28, ought to be well worth checking out, partly because it’s the kind of concert where almost anything could happen.