Swing comes full swing into the future

Editor’s Note: This is part two of a two-part series on Swing music by Rob Kuznia. Part one appeared last week.

Last week, I attended a swing workshop and watched scores of eager couples learn how to perform swing aerials and dips all afternoon for $25. This week, I watched swingers in action at the Turf Club, where the Vibro Champs were playing. During the first set, the Champs played straight up rockabilly jump blues. The dancers were satisfied, each couple punctuating the end of every song with a dip I saw people learn last week in the workshop.
As the night progressed, the Vibro Champs became more animated. They played original pieces that incorporated elements of surf, punk and disco. They cranked up the reverb. Frontman Dave Wolfe’s guitar and face became simultaneously more distorted. His stage freak-outs became more frequent. By the third set, the large tattoo on his upper arm suddenly seemed to stand in stark contrast to the khakis, golf shirts, dresses, saddle shoes, ties and fedoras spinning sweatily about on the dance floor.
In a vague way, I was reminded of the Michael J. Fox guitar freak-out in “Back to the Future” when he gave the unsuspecting audience a dosage of the 1980s heavy metal that was to come. In the movie, there was an unmistakable rift between the audience and Fox’s character, McFly. Though the rift between the dancers and the Vibro Champs was may be less blatant, it was still present on Saturday. In “Back to the Future,” the audience stared straight ahead in confusion. But the dancers in the Turf Club dealt with the rift by ignoring it. Swing dancing through the punk, surf, and disco riffs, it seemed as if they all wore headphones plugged into a giant Discman playing a Benny Goodman CD.
Why is this? According to Peter Scholtes, music critic for the City Pages, this is because swing isn’t a music craze; it’s a dance craze. People swing dance to all kinds of music, he said. On Saturday night, they even swing danced to the Vibro Champs’ tribute to Kurt Cobain, though some dancers did murmur a collective groan while doing so.
But just because swing dancers aren’t particular about the music doesn’t mean they’re not picky about the dancing. And it certainly doesn’t mean there’s no swing subculture craze.
Judy Anne has felt the social sting that only a subcultural craze can inflict: ostracism. She didn’t want me to use her last name, because lately she’s already been somewhat alienated from the hard-core dance floor.
“I only have about two to four dance partners left,” she said.
On Saturday night, while dancing with a khaki-panted guy around 40-something, she messed up a couple times.
“You’ve been drinking, haven’t you?!” he accused her. Though she admitted to having a couple beers, she denied being intoxicated. But he walked away, shaking his head. This isn’t because he was concerned for her welfare. On the contrary, he was concerned for his own.
“If you don’t get the moves right, the die-hards think they will look like fools,” she said. This being the case, the swing dancers — who commonly refer to themselves as the “swing kids,” firmly believe dancing and drinking don’t mix. Because Judy Anne likes to have a drink or two when she goes out, she’s frowned upon by the community. But a bartender or two might frown upon the community itself.
“When I’ve bartended for the Hot Head Swing Band, the bar hasn’t been as busy as it could be,” said an O’Gara’s bartender named Dan. Dan says sometimes an entire swing crowd will only buy one or two drinks. Most swing dancers order water. “They’re not a soak crowd,” he said. “It’s not good for tips, but you got to take the good with the bad. Not everyone’s going to slam it down.”
Judy Anne attributes the stone sober swing kid demeanor in part to the Gap commercial.
“It wrecked everything,” she said. “During the good old days before the commercial, the dance floors weren’t so crowded, and the fad wasn’t so cliquey.”
Indeed, the Gap commercial did have a profound effect on the trend. In an MTV interview with Robert Mancini, for example, jump blues rock star Brian Setzer tipped his fedora to the commercial.
Interestingly enough, those affiliated with the swing revival around here seem cynical about the commercial. There’s word on the street, for instance, that Fine Line swing kids have been booing Louis Prima’s “Jump, Jive, an’ Wail,” the song featured in the commercial. And Dave Wolfe of the Vibro Champs gave me an interesting tidbit: Due to the commercial hype, bands enjoyed by swing kids take pains to avoid being referred to as swing bands, in fear of perishing by the inevitable swing backlash.
But maybe in the long run it would be better to embrace a backlash. Last week, I said I’d try to figure out the essence of this swing thing. Is swing the product of a lost generation? Is innovation dying? Tough to say. But a few things are apparent. The swing thing isn’t just for kicks; it’s a way of life for some, both musicians and dancers alike.
But while bands like the Vibro Champs or Reverend Horton Heat are blending, bending and fusing, the audience seems to be merely memorizing.
The other day I was listening to a Credence Clearwater Revival tune, and I was struck with some immediate images: war, blue collarness, Nixon, burning bras and middle fingers. Credence Clearwater Revival seemed to come from this, whatever “this” is. To some extent, that’s the impression Dave Wolfe and the Vibro Champs gave me as well. At age 14, Wolf played in a punk band called Last Angry Word in California. He came to Minneapolis in the late ’80s and has been incorporating swing, jump blues, punk and surf styles in his music ever since. This history is manifested in the songs they write, but the audience obsesses on just one slice of that history — the slice they paid $25 for at a workshop.
At a concert, I’d like to see swing dancing, moshing, moonwalking and all-out improvisation. I’d like to see a swing dancer slam into a slam dancer, or vice versa. Instead, the die-hards dance the same way to all styles and get mad at each other for drinking or doing anything else that impairs their ability to mirror the past. To simply stick religiously to the moves learned in class can only lead one to think innovation is dead.
People have learned how to swing. Now they should loosen up and try to give the kids something to be retro about in the future.
Rob Kuznia’s column appears every Tuesday.