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Photo by Eric RodriguezThink of the Fling as the last fading bit of old Vegas-style glory in Orange County. The 30-year-old Santa Ana lounge looks like an exclusive, smoke-filled VIP room where Frank, Dino and Sammy might have held court back in '65. But these days, it's standing-room-only for young, Urban Outfitters-clad hipsters in search of this season's kitschiest trend. These recent maximum-capacity crowds can be traced to one person: Phil Shane.
Shane is in rare form tonight. He's in the middle of his Neil Diamond set, and the closing bars of "Sweet Caroline" are fading out. As the crowd roars in appreciation—as it always does after this particular sing-along tune—a fan hands Shane one of his own glossy 8-by-10 headshots along with a Sharpie marker. In one fluid move, Shane scribbles his autograph and a personal inscription, raises a shot glass handed to him by another fan, introduces the next song as "one of [his] favorites off The Jazz Singer," and then inhales the drink all while the twangy opening bass line of "America" kicks in.
Shane has experienced something of a revitalization these days. Lately, his audience has been made up mostly of skinny white kids who look like they either want to be or date one of the guys in Weezer. They're so young most of them were probably still in diapers when The Jazz Singer was released. If you're familiar with this crowd, you know that their cynicism isn't an attitude: it's a lifestyle.
The tongue-in-cheek scene makes you wonder how genuine Shane's reception really is tonight. Sure, the appreciation from the gray-haired regulars has always been sincere, but what about the rookie drinkers? The ones who smirk, nudge one another and giggle when Shane slips on his rhinestone-studded Elvis jacket and grinds his crotch around like a lap dancer, all as a tribute to the King? Is it sideshow-esque mockery or legit fan appreciation?
"I think I know what you're trying to ask," Shane finally says after I dance around the question of his new following's sincerity. "But I think the younger kids that come to the shows know that I'm honest about what I do up there, and they appreciate it. I'd really be in trouble if I wasn't sincere."
Still, it's easy to see why some might mistake Shane for a novelty act. He goes through about as many wardrobe changes as Cher. He also encourages friendly, open dialogue with his audience (a quality unheard of in a county where musicians are given high marks for animosity or indifference). And on top of it all, he sings along, karaoke-style, to a digital Mini Disc deck sequenced with prerecorded instrumentals (except when he strums along to the tracks on his black-lacquer acoustic guitar).
"The [prerecorded music] just makes the show go smoother," Shane admits in a raspy voice during one of his rare afternoons off. "I've been playing in bands since I was 13 back in Mississippi; I've played in traditional bands all my life. But when I perform my set, I don't want to stop the momentum. And three hours of playing six, sometimes seven nights a week is a lot to ask of [a backing band]. It's just easier to sing to the prerecorded music."
Shane wasn't always playing to full rooms. When he first secured his gig at the Fling (after playing rooms in and around SoCal since 1972), the bar was usually just a place for the neighborhood career drinkers to spend their Social Security check.
"When I started out at the Fling three years ago, the crowd was old," Shane chuckles. "For the first few months, it was kind of slow. But Big Sandy and his group [the Fly-Rite Boys] would drop by every now and then."
According to legend, when Big Sandy reserved the Fling for a Christmas party, he made a point to include Shane as the evening's entertainment. "He invited all of his friends, and the place was packed with young kids. I just did my regular set, and there was so much energy," Shane recalls. "It just snowballed from there—word of mouth. I really have [Big Sandy] to thank."
Shane has the Fling to thank for his first full-length release, aptly titled A Fling Thing. His growing notoriety at the lounge made an album viable.
"My wife always told me I should release a CD, but I couldn't find the time. I was performing just about every night of the week," Shane recalls. "I just didn't have the time to write songs. Then one night, I came back from a gig and she says, 'Here, I wrote you a song.'"
That song was "Love On the Internet." He claims the tune has actually garnered quite a bit of attention in Europe, even cracking the Top 10 charts in France, which isn't too hard to believe from a country that worships Jerry Lewis and Mickey Rourke.
Although the album never captures the verve of his live performances, Shane's debut is still a solid effort. Besides the cover of "Breathless," the CD is a showcase of original material performed with the backing band he calls on when he plays large venues.