Black Music Matters Festival

Hot Club of Cowtown is ultrahot

Johnny D's, Somerville, Mass., April 29, 1999

By Jeffrey B. Remz

SOMERVILLE, MA - Last time around - Halloween 1998 - when the Hot Club of Cowtown came to town, they opened for Sleep LaBeef and even earned an encore.

This time around, the western swing/jazz trio drew a healthy crowd as headliners, underscoring why their initial success was warranted.

First off is the music. HCOC - lead singer, guitarist Whit Smith, fiddler Elana Fremerman and upright bassist Billy Horton - seemed to have earned high marks from Bob Wills University, maybe even phDs.

All seem well steeped in the father of western swing. The group played a number of Wills-identified songs, including "Ida Red," "Take Me Back to Tulsa" and "Deep Water."

There is a real bouncy, upbeat bent to the musical proceedings , and Smith, Fremerman and Horton all can play.

Sitting in center stage, Smith's playing was understated, but that doesn't mean it wasn't powerful. He had numerous lighting quick, often steely runs inthe Speedy West/Jimmy Bryant style without ever showing off. He was equally adept at taking it down a notch too (Cindy Walker's "It's All Your Fault," which was recorded by Wills).

Fremerman's fiddle playing was spirited in both sets with Berklee School of Music department head Matt Glaser helping out as well for a powerful double fiddle attack. Frederman really made the fiddle sing.

Horton was more in the background on bass, but he kept a steady rhythm going.

Often within the same song, each member would be featured, but the tightness of the group (even without using a set list) easily supported the musical handoffs.

Smith handled most of the singing chores without any problem, though Horton (particularly cute on "Rag Mop" with Smith and Fremerman doing backup vocals) and Fremerman also sang a few songs apiece. Fremerman seemed to lack the confidence of her band-mates in being out front. But the ability to have three vocalists kept the proceedings even more interesting before an appreciative, enthusiastic crowd.

Hot Club of Cowtown is a well-deserved moniker no matter what town they happen to playing in.