in performance: the hot club of cowtown

In many ways, it was an evening both bittersweet and unexpected.

On one hand, when The Hot Club of Cowtown became, around 10:45 p.m., the last band to take the stage at The Dame, the party became full blown. The crowd filed in, the string blasts of Bob Wills’ Western swing classic Ida Red filled the room and all seemed perfectly merry for a club that was just hours away from extinction.

But in some ways, this was a cordial, almost relaxed send off to what has been one of Lexington’s most beloved nightspots of the past five years. Maybe it was the fact that The Dame was in the home stretch of a farewell party that had actually started Friday night with a Wax Fang/Whigs performance that lasted into the wee hours of Saturday.

The mere fact The Dame chose a Sunday night to close down, of course, muted any real scenario for a blowout. But the mix of Hot Club’s vintage jazz and wild Western swing sounds also managed to keep this sign-off on the cool but spirited side.

From the barnyard swing of Cherokee Shuffle to the more summery stride adopted by fiddler Elana James for ‘Deed I Do, the Austin, Tx. trio displayed a rustic string sound that was refreshingly free of retro dressing. In fact, much of the Hot Club’s music boasted considerable rootsy vitality.

The James original Twenty Four Hours a Day was a case in point. From James’ mad fiddle dashes to Whit Smith’s equally agitated guitar romps to Jake Erwin’s fat, percussive string bass colors, the tune was half romantic escapde/half runaway car chase.

Up to that point, though, it was a calm night that differed from most other evenings of business at the club only in that some of the seating had already been removed and most of the posters had been stripped from the walls.

Another tip off that The Dame’s last call was at hand came after an hour-long opening set from The Swells that gave a sweaty New Orleans makeover to music by everyone from Duke Ellington to The Kinks. During intermission, numerous patrons stood outside the club and snapped photographs of the marquee as final keepsakes.

One soul that seemed almost cheerfully unmoved by the whole downtown drama surrounding The Dame was James’ dog, Eva, who followed the fiddler from the concessions booth to make herself at home onstage as if it were a living room floor. Only a momentary blast of bass feedback during Chinatown My Chinatown seemed to startle her.

Hot Club’s high spirits grew hotter as the evening wound down. Another Wills classic, Stay a Little Longer, complete with The Swells’ Chris Sullivan and Warren Byrom adding clarinet and trumpet respectively, concluded the set proper. But encores happily tacked on another half-hour to The Dame’s final performance.

The last live song played on The Dame’s stage: Fuli Tschai, an exuberant, Eastern flavored fiddle tune that sounded like Orange Blossom Special retooled by gypsies. Many patrons in the crowd waltzed to the tune.

Sunday, as it turned out, probably wasn’t the best time to gauge what The Dame’s demise will mean for Main St. as most of the surrounding businesses were closed for the evening anyway. A better example might come tonight. With The Dame’s doors closed for good – at least, at this location – the real sound of downtown silence will settle in. 

(above, The Hot Club of Cowtown: Whit Smith, Elana James, Jake Erwin) 

The Hot Club of Cowtown performs again at 7 tonight for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour at the Kentucky Theatre. Admission is $10. For reservations, call (859) 252-8888.   

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