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From the Country Standard Time Archives

Hot Club swings, whle Sleepy rocks

Johnny D's, Somerville, Mass., Oct. 30, 1998

By Jon Johnson

SOMERVILLE, MA - Sleepy LaBeef is one of the best-drawing original '50's rockers on the road these days, while the Hot Club of Cowtown checked in with their first area appearance, supporting their debut album, "Swingin' Stampede."

The Austin group didn't disappoint. Opening with "Ida Red," the trio (bassist Billy Horton, guitarist/vocalist Whit Smith, and Elena Fremerman on fiddle and vocals) had couples dancing right away.

With a repertoire almost totally consisting of songs either originally recorded by or eventually performed by Bob Wills, the Hot Club swung like there was no tomorrow.

Though unfair to single out one member, Smith's technique was incredible; clean single-note leads equally influenced by Eddie Lang and Django Reinhart and performed on a gorgeous 1925 Gibson. Mark my words: you will hear more of Smith once the word gets out.

Though Smith handled lead vocals on most other songs, Fremerman turned in a sweet rendition of the Spade Cooley chestnut, "You Can't Break My Heart." Her fiddle playing was a perfect counterpoint to Smith's guitar work; equally capable of breakdowns and jazzy soloing.

Bassist Billy Horton (also of Austin's Horton Brothers) is a tremendously fluid upright bassist with a warm, natural tone, laying down the rhythm with far more authority than one would expect from a 22-year-old.

The Hot Club's set seemed far too short but were allowed a rare privilege for an opening act at Johnny D's: an encore.

Backed by a bassist, drummer, and trumpet player, the crowd rarely left the dance floor as LaBeef and band ran through about two dozen songs, including "Waltz Across Texas," "Jailhouse Rock," "Polk Salad Annie," "Johnny B. Goode" and "Tiger by the Tail."

This is probably the tightest band I've seen backing LaBeef and though the bassist's funk-style slapping gets a little tedious at times (a bass solo on "Waltz Across Texas?!?!?!"), the rhythm section held down the bottom end with authority, seemingly ready to tackle any of the 6,000 songs in Sleepy's repertoire at any moment.

LaBeef is really one of a kind; a national treasure in a way. His huge frame and booming baritone seem like the only vessels capable of containing the man's voice and repertoire. His bands come and go, but the 63-year-old Sleepy LaBeef is always out there in front of an appreciative audience. Don't miss him.