Swinging it like it's '56
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., September 5, 2002) – If you didn’t look or listen too closely you could have thought you had entered a time travel machine at Club Helsinki on Wednesday night, when Jo Miller and Her Burly Roughnecks performed a program of vintage hillbilly swing, circa 1956.

It was a time when the birth pangs of rock ‘n’ roll were first heard and felt, when western swing – jazzy country music -- was still a popular sound in the south and west, and most importantly, when the boundaries between black and white music were collapsing, a reflection of the trend toward wider racial integration in American life.

Miller’s group, from Seattle, mined that musical territory for all it was worth in its first set, with original compositions and vintage tunes ranging from Harlan Howard to Jackie Wilson, all tied together by a dedication to the highly stylized twang, four-part vocal harmonies and the incessant swing of hillbilly honky-tonk.

There was enough room in the style for a Tex-Mex flavored “My Baby Bought a Gun,” featuring Miller’s versatile vocals with a Buddy Holly-style hiccup and a Jerry Lee Lewis-like growl and Nova Devonie’s Flaco Jimenez-laced accordion. Lead guitarist David Keenan played Django Reinhardt-like rhythms and chunky, twang-filled single-note leads out of the Buck Owens playbook.

Standing six feet, six inches, Corey Kaiser made his double bass look like a toy, and he slapped it with confident ease, as drummer Mike Daugherty produced more music with just a snare and a high-hat than many a drummer with an entire trap set.

Miller mined honky-tonk myths with tongue-in-cheek songs about illicit love, shootouts and, in “Imperial Mansion on a Hill,” a love song to a recreational vehicle. She found common ground between country music and r&b with versions of the Five Keys’ “She the Most” and a Jackie Wilson number, giving them a soulful twang.

Keenan and Devonie conversed instrumentally on the former’s “Gone and Done It,” an instrumental tune with a dollop of Gypsy swing and a twist of Chet Atkins that had the guitar and accordion virtually dancing with each other.

In a previous incarnation, Miller’s Burly Roughnecks were the core of Ranch Romance, a group dating back to the 1980s. While Ranch Romance failed to garner the sort of mainstream pop success that came to other neo-swing groups like Squirrel Nut Zippers in the mid-to-late 1990s when the music experienced a sudden revival, the Burly Roughnecks are clearly committed to venerating the tradition for the long haul.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on September 6, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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