Squirrel Nut Zippers Revisit the Swinging ’90s at The Grove

Squirrel Nut Zippers
City National Grove of Anaheim

It’s always nice to see a cult band performing at a respectable venue like the Grove. For Friday evening’s entertainment, the retro Jazz stylings of Squirrel Nut Zippers drew a conservative but devoted crowd of would-be speakeasy patrons to swing the night away. Many a guest dressed to the nines and Swing danced to the melodies of both the Los Angeles-based openers, The California Feetwarmers, as well as to the strains of Chapel Hill, North Carolina’s Squirrel Nut Zippers.

Prior to The California Feetwarmers’ taking the stage, it was a little disheartening to see that only a few hundred people had filed into the 1,700 capacity venue, but from the first stroke of Carlos Reynoso’s fingertips across his washboard, none of that mattered anymore. The charm of the seven-piece New Orleans / Ragtime band was intoxicating, and even those who weren’t twirling a partner in an open space were moving their bodies and tapping their feet in time to the anachronistic tunes of the L.A. band throughout their set. When these talented fellas aren’t on the road, it is highly recommended that fans of old-timey Jazz make their way up to L.A. to check out their act at the Onyx Lounge, where they frequently perform.

Next up came the main attraction. The current Squirrel Nut Zippers line-up may only include one of the original band members, but when that member is James “Jimbo” Mathus, it’s okay because it is quite apparent that the band’s founder definitely still knows how to put together a great show. Before the SNZs even hit the stage, the voodoo props and Dia de los Muertos decorations, which adorned the instruments, set the mood. When the nine-piece Zippers walked on stage and began playing, the current line-up lit the place up. They complemented the already high bar of virtuoso jazz performances, established by the opening act, with an over-the-top and infectious spirit of revelry.

They played songs from throughout the Zippers catalog and a few tunes from an upcoming album. Naturally, they performed a bunch of stuff from Hot (1996), including “Prince Nez,” “Bad Businessman,” “Blue Angel,” and (of course) “Hell.” A good deal of the set came from their first album, The Inevitable (1995), including “Plenty More,” “I’ve Found a New Baby,” and “Club Limbo.” Songs from 1998’s Perennial Favorites included “My Drag,” “Evening at Lafitte’s,” and “Suits Are Picking up the Bill.” But sandwiched in the middle were a few tunes from an upcoming release — including “West of Zanzibar” and “Rusty Trombone.” For their finale, they invited The California Feetwarmers to join them onstage for a raucous and extended jam of “Bedlam Ballroom” from their 2000 album of the same name.

One of the coolest aspects about the show was not listening to great songs or experiencing the performances of the many great musicians, it was witnessing the ongoing phenomenon of something special. As Mathus explained during the show, the band never expected to perform in front of real crowds; they were essentially a bunch of “weird” friends who put the act together as a goof. As the years went on, they stumbled upon fame while masking a lot of dark episodes with deceptively happy tunes, and the original line-up eventually all but completely eroded. However, the musicians that carry the band’s legacy of lunacy around Mathus now include an extremely impressive line-up, featuring Justin Carr (aka Dr. Sick), whose hilarious interjections were impressively eclipsed by his mind-blowing turns on the violin, guitar, singing saw, and seemingly anything he could create a percussive hit on. Cella Blue’s sexy shimmying and vocals provided the requisite feminine counterpoint to the talented fellas who comprised most of the rest of the band (Tamara Nicolai rocked the double bass). All in all, the totality of entertainment most certainly made a worthwhile contribution to Mathus’s farewell plea: “Let’s make America weird again!”

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