Los Angeles bands swing into an old-school music revival
A nine-piece band replete with tuba, washboard, accordion, fiddle, mandolin, trumpet and guitar joyously pumped out early 20th century standards such as “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” Muddy Waters’ deep blues and original tunes that would have sounded utterly at home within the hallowed confines of Preservation Hall in New Orleans’ French Quarter.
The seven men, most with suspenders attached to well-worn trousers, broad ties and vests and some sporting 1930s-vintage newsboy caps, and two women in flapper-inspired dresses, are members of a ragtag outfit called the Dustbowl Revival, strumming, sawing and puffing enthusiastically as smiling listeners on the dance floor swung their partners infectiously.
But this wasn’t vintage footage from one of the “soundies” films that were early music videos, or a period theater piece. It came courtesy of a band with an average age of about 27, in the heart of Silver Lake, at a club that usually houses mopey indie acts and beat-heavy EDM.
This was no musical anomaly either. It’s a scene that’s playing out across L.A. Several nights later the music-theater collective Vaud and the Villains (complete in Depression-era attire) generated a storm of energy and freewheeling musicality at the Fais Do-Do club midtown. A few miles away at the Gorbals downtown, another musical throwback, the Eastern European-influenced Petrojvic Blasting Company, performed. That is, when the similarly idiosyncratic band Captain Jeff & His Musical Chumbuckets isn’t performing there.
While many of their peers are hunkered over laptop computers and mixing consoles in bedrooms and garages across the city, an enthusiastic and burgeoning community of young musicians are embracing sounds and traditions that originated not only before they were born, but in many cases before their parents and even grandparents came along.
“I know that digital technology is helpful, yet there’s something mysterious and sort of magical about analog,” said Zach Lupetin, leader of the Dustbowl Revival, which formed about four years ago. “There’s a lot of this throwback music, which is maybe because of the recession or depression fever. But literally within the last three years, 10 bars have opened in L.A. specifically designed for that ‘30s feel; they want old-school bluegrass and jazz.”
Vitriolic political campaigns rooted in fear-mongering and economic uncertainty reflected in daily headlines have ramped up worries among adolescents and young adults, concerns that for some aren’t remedied by escape into the technologically dependent, relentlessly beat-driven electronic music that is increasingly dominating pop music.
Instead, many are finding solace and release in music borne of earlier periods of hard times, music that eased, at least temporarily, some social angst.
Chris Sampson, head of USC’s music performance degree program, said that to many of today’s aspiring musicians, music predating World War II “has really intriguing back stories, socioeconomic stories and context that goes beyond the music. I think what captures students’ attention is not just the music, but these stories about the great [Depression-era] migrations out of Oklahoma, the mysteries of rural Southern blues, there’s some intrigue to all of this that captures them.”
Much of the sound being rediscovered by local bands has roots in the hot jazz style associated with Louis Armstrong and New Orleans, but some acts are delving into other strains of music popular during the Roaring ‘20s and into the swing era of the 1930s. Some see loose parallels with the neo-soul strain of pop that’s yielded big commercial dividends for Adele, Amy Winehouse, Joss Stone and other singers tapping earlier traditions.
And more than one of the new crop of old-school music aficionados cites Bruce Springsteen’s 2006 “The Seeger Sessions” as a musical flash point.
“It deeply inspired us,” said Vaud Overstreet, the stage name of actor-musician Andy Comeau and the nominal leader of the 19-piece New Orleans jazz-inspired collective Vaud and the Villains. The band also features his wife, Peaches Mahoney.
“We were lying there in bed one night and I just thought, ‘What if we created a show around this style of music?’” Overstreet said. “I started researching the older bands. Everybody thinks rock ‘n’ roll started in the ‘50s, but there were some really rocking bands — just string band or horn bands — at the turn of the century that were killing it.”
Kris Hutson and Pearl Charles formed the Driftwood Singers, a duo that plays a homespun, back-porch country sound akin with the Carter Family, an influential trio popular during the Great Depression.
“There was something in the transparency of these recordings made before there was tape,” said Charles. “They only had one shot at each record — it couldn’t be edited. You had to put your heart and soul into each and every one, mistakes and all. There’s something about hearing those mistakes.”
Such sincere, mistake-prone music may have a soul not apparent in technologically based sounds.
"[DJ’s] will sell out stadiums and all they’ll be doing is pushing buttons in front of tens of thousands of people,” said Ivan Pyzow, a 19-year-old trumpeter, keyboardist and songwriter in the ‘20s jazz band Doozy. “Some people find that exciting, but it seems pretty boring to me.”
Said USC’s Sampson: “It’s the idea that you’re playing because it’s just pure fun and you’re having a great pure time, rather than being overly fussy and counting the steps of your choreography.... There’s a lot to be said for that ..... I always tell my students: ‘If you’re not having fun on stage, neither is your audience.’”
Singer and songwriter Janet Klein took that notion to heart three decades ago when she started working a ukulele into her poetry readings.
“I feel like I started to make this music partly because it just wasn’t around,” said Klein, who kicks off her ninth year playing regularly at the Steve Allen Theater in Hollywood in January. “Something was missing for me. I was very close to older people in my family. My grandfather, Marty Klein, was a vaudeville musician, and we had photos and brochures of his act. He died when I was really young, but we got lots of stories about him from other members of the family.
“I was just trying to reach out toward the things that are meaningful to me, things that make sense, things that fill some yearning for something that seems missing in the culture around me,” she said.
Previous musical revivals, such as the rockabilly resurgence of the 1980s, played out largely to a niche audience, but there are signs that this behind-the-curve movement may have a broader reach, even though none of these acts have yet had a major breakthrough with any of their independent recordings.
Leftover Cuties, a quartet based around the vintage cabaret-style vocals and ukulele-strumming of singer Shirli McAllen, had its gently swinging “Game Called Life” chosen as the theme for the Showtime series “The Big C.” Another of its tracks, the peppy, Charleston-ready “Smile Big,” was featured prominently in a Samsung commercial that aired during coverage of this year’s Olympic Games.
“With all this technology that’s going on, almost everybody can go into their garage and make an electronic track and use fake drums without ever getting together,” said McAllen. “This is a different thing, and I think people are touched by it.”
British rocker-turned-pop music historian Ian Whitcomb, a staunch practitioner of earlier musical styles for nearly half a century, has been watching the lively throwback music scene with great satisfaction. The 71-year-old singer, bandleader, uke enthusiast and long-ago L.A. transplant finds the new class of roots musicians “inspiring.”
“I don’t think they’re in it for the money,” he said. “They are really dedicated to the music. They’re not in it to be rock stars.”
“It’s so alive,” said Jeffrey Moran, the Captain Jeff of the Musical Chumbuckets, whose membership overlaps with Vaud and the Villains and the Dustbowl Revival. “It’s so feel-good. People have told us they could be having the worst day, but seeing us play and perform, their day changes.
“People are trying to get over their worries,” he said. “That’s the main goal for us: to make them smile, make them forget for a little while that they have troubles. That’s why we love the music. That’s what it does for us.”
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