Featured Music: Wednesday, January 9, 2003
It Don’t Mean a Thing ...

If it ain’t got thatGospel Swingers swing.


Them that knows say Austin blows. They’ll tell you that “America’s Live Music Capital,®” where musicians are ticketed for loading in on Sixth Street, is losing or has already lost its status among the pop musical elite as a steppingstone to the Big Time. South By Southwest has become more of a place where record companies can show off their rosters than a bona fide opportunity for unsigned bands to make connections. The last time I was there, in Y2K, the garish parade of middle-aged hipsters with bad dye jobs in black rock ’n’ roll t-shirts, slumming yups, and obnoxious UT kids was giving Sixth Street an unpleasant Bourbon Street-cum-Las Vegas Strip aura.

This doesn’t mean there wasn’t any good music. For one, there were Fort Worth’s Gospel Swingers, playing an “anti-SXSW” event at a record store on Guadalupe Street in the middle of a bill topped by free-jazz punks the Lord High Fixers, playing their last-ever show, and the Fatal Flying Guillotines, who just might be the worst live band ever.

“That was a terrible show!” said Swingers organist Kari Luna of the Austin performance. She was talking before a recent show of theirs at Spider Babies, a righteous little rock room on the periphery of Deep Ellum, where Houston’s the Jewws and Austin’s the Deadites were also slated to perform. Swingers bassist Alex Cuervo agreed: “It was too early in the day. We need to drink more before a show.”

For a while there, it was getting damn near impossible to catch the Swingers on any Metroplex stage. They were scheduled to open for the Bellrays at the Gypsy Tea Room before the L.A. band’s tour was cancelled. They also had to bow out of the Denton Peace Festival after Luna injured her rotator cuff doing yoga (the road to inner peace can be a bumpy one). “It’s hard to get everyone together,” admitted Cuervo. “We’ve all got jobs and careers — not to say that the band is just a hobby — and it seems like there’s always somebody out of town. Plus, [guitarist] Chris [Merlick] is expecting a baby.” Late 2002 saw the Swingers back in action, with a new c.d. in the can and a couple of shows under their belts. Now they’re on temporary hiatus again, awaiting the birth of Merlick’s child later this month.

After all the hoopla surrounding “garage” bands like the Hives, the Mooney Suzuki, the Flaming Sideburns, et al, you might wonder how much juice there is left to be wrung from the legacy of ’60s proto-punk bands like the Sonics, Them, and the Pretty Things. There’s even a kind of moldy-fig elitist purism creeping into garage fandom, manifest in the two fans at the last-ever Dead Sexy show at Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studio in Denton who were standing around with their arms folded, frowning, and shaking their heads with disapproval at guitarist Jeremy Diaz’ use of (gasp!) a wah-wah pedal.

What’s refreshing about the Swingers is their lack of mannered garage-poseur bullshit. They don’t dress up funny; no pudding-bowl haircuts or matching suits for these kids. Their show, Cuervo said later, is about “getting sweaty,” and the musicians do. All you need to do is keep an eye on lead singer Quincy Holloway, falling around the stage, blowing better blues harp than at least Mick Jagger, and sticking his microphone in fans’ faces and mouthing the words like a human karaoke machine. The crowd at Spider Babies responded to the Swingers by going apeshit and singing along with all the songs.What the Swingers have that a lot of gee-rage bands lack is groove. Petite organist Luna plays a Korg “because I wanted something I could carry by myself when nobody else was around,” but her sound is pure Hammond B-3, bringing a heavy Booker T. & the MG’s vibe to the music. She carries more of the load musically than any keyboardist this side of the Forty Fives’ man-mountain Trey Tidwell, and she’s easier on the eye to boot. Bassist Cuervo favors a trebly, buzzsaw tone, and his stage trip is straight out of the Dee Dee Ramone school (although it’s doubtful that Dee Dee ever thought about playing slide bass). When not busy with the Swingers, Cuervo plays slide guitar and sings with the band A Feast of Snakes.

Luna and Cuervo, along with Swingers drummer Steve Adkins, played with Austin garage guru Tim Kerr and Bellrays frontwoman Lisa Kekaula in Now Time Delegation. “We lucked into that one,” said Cuervo. “It just kind of came together. We can’t recreate that scenario.” This past summer, Kerr produced the Gospel Swingers’ first full-length c.d. at Sweatbox Studios in Austin. The disc is a strong collection of tunes marked by producer Kerr’s “party-in-the-studio” aesthetic, with weird non sequitur segues reminiscent of the first Bellrays album. “We paid for the record ourselves,” said Cuervo. “We have a short list of labels we feel comfortable dealing with, labels that bands are happy with. They aren’t corporate raiders, but are supportive of the bands they sign.” Gregg Kostelich, president of Pittsburgh garage label Get Hip, actually called Kerr about the Swingers without even hearing their c.d.

In the three years since I witnessed my first Gospel Swingers “revival” at SXSW, the kind of sweaty garage ramalama that they play has enjoyed a brief ascendancy as musical flavor-of-the-month among rock fans of the “me-too” variety. It’s likely that by the time the debut Swingers disc hits the streets, the inevitable backlash against the Hives and their kin will have taken place. Talking to the Swingers, one gets the impression that they could care less. They do things their own way, in their own time.

“The inner culture of this band,” said Cuervo, “is one where we all coexist pretty harmoniously. We’re all good friends who like doing things together. We’re not incredibly ambitious. The band isn’t our primary source of income, so there’s no pressure to perform. We just want to work to preserve the integrity of the music.”

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