It was 20 years ago that Squirrel Nut Zippers, the Chapel Hill-based alt-swing revival band, met unlikely commercial success with the single “Hell” from their album “Hot,” which was re-released in July of this year and coincided with an announcement of a new tour. It’s easy to dismiss this particular kind of eccentric late 90s one hit wonder, and the swing revival had a very brief period of mainstream success before being drowned out by ska and the considerably worse electro-swing. What is the meaning of Squirrel Nut Zippers? Quid est Squirrel Nut Zippers?
Before the main act took the stage, Charleston’s own V-Tones warmed the audience with a range of winking covers of some of the most beloved classics of the big band era, performed, intermittently, on ukulele, kazoo, bass, guitar, slide whistle, and percussion—with built-in tap performance. A desperately charming display.
The thing one first notices about Squirrel Nut Zippers when they appear onstage is their costuming: Jimbo Malthus in an all red suit, black bowler hat; Ingrid Lucia in a dazzling sequin dress. The element that defines a Squirrel Nut Zippers show is a consummate sense of showmanship—old fashioned, vaguely Vaudevillian, even—frequent costume changes, an old-timey theatricality.
As was to be expected, the crowd most eagerly responded to “Hell,” their aforementioned single. I suspect it was the only song in their catalog most knew. While the band didn’t quite have the same kind of serious musical chops that the greats they were imitating possessed, they certainly knew how to put on a show, freewheeling between genres—big band, calypso, gypsy jazz—and punctuating transitions with an ironic wit. Toward the end of the show, a screen came down and on it was projected the music video for “Ghost of Stephen Foster,” a black and white cartoon pastiche.
Pastiche seems an appropriate word to describe Squirrel Nut Zippers in general, really—their unique pomo approach to swing might not be to everyone’s liking, but it certainly is familiar with its source material.
Written by Ryan Tully