Monday, October 7, 2013

Review: Jitterbug Vipers - Phoebe's Dream

For some, the Jitterbug Vipers would be an easy band to simply disregard due to the music’s heavy drug references and support, seeming to merge a Jerry Garcia idealism and practice together with Billie Holliday flavors. It’s a jarring contrast for some and will leave more than a few dissuaded.

And we haven’t even mentioned bassist Francie Meaux Jeaux’s signature performance tactic of “Ass to the People,” something that’s become a rallying cry and bumper sticker favorite.

Yet, for those willing to look past ideological differences (or agreements, depending upon your viewpoint), this Austin, Texas-based quartet has plenty to offer. Best known for it’s signature delivery of classic jazz and blues which hearken back to the heyday of the 30s and 40s, performing a personalized version of the jazz offshoot known as “viper jazz,” best described as a “screeching U-Turn back to the party where jazz music packed the dance floor and dazzled the audience with brilliant streams of improvisatory musicianship.”

The band formed three years ago, lead by none other than Texas’s appropriately dubbed “Most Dangerous Guitar Player,” Slim Richey. Boasting a musical heritage that spans western swing, R&B, and bluegrass, Richey is the cornerstone around which the band draws its inspiration. Sultry chanteuse Sarah Sharp, who also holds songwriting duties, is another key to the band’s success, her use of innuendo and tongue-in-cheek humor playing alongside her evocative and sensual vocals, each note feeling like a sexual tease.

Rounding out the quartet are Richey’s wife of twenty-five years, Francie Meaux Jeaux, who shows her pluck on bass and Japan native Masumi Jones on drums, who jokingly shares, “I didn’t really realize what kind of band I was in until 3 or 4 months later, when we were at a legalize marijuana demonstration.”

But whether or not you agree or disagree with the group’s pro-ganja mentality and lyricism, you can’t deny their stunning musicianship as evidenced on their latest recording, Phoebe’s Dream. Here the band’s full array of “swingadelic” tones and musical chops are on full display, their blend of “wink wink nod nod” lyricism blending seamlessly with stunning instrumental compositions.

The title track sets things in motion, Sharp’s vocal warm, reminiscent of Norah Jones and Diana Krall, slinking through her lyrics while Richey’s guitar fills and Jones’ brushed drums keep things pressing forward before giving way to Meaux Jeaux’s thrumming upright bass lines on “A Viper Just the Same.” An album highlight comes in the innuendo-filled, “Stuff It,” featuring a guest vocal and co-write from Asleep at the Wheel’s Elizabeth McQueen. It’s a jaunty musical ride with playful vocals that just showcases some of the best the band has to offer.

“When You’re High” is a sweetly smoky showcase of Sharp’s vocals, the arrangement sparse and smooth while “That Was Just the Sauce Talking” recalls The Little Willies with a lighthearted yet artful composition that wonderfully frames the vocal duet between Sharp and guest, Jacob Jaeger. “Viper Moon” is another smooth groove while Richey shows off his severe talents on the instrumental homage, “Django’s Birthday,” giving the revered gypsy jazz composer a run for his money.

Elements of the blues also play into the Jitterbug Vipers set with a cover of the Billie Holiday classic, “Billie’s Blues,” finding Richey rock the fret board while Sharp pouts through each line, Jones doing a fine job of setting the pace. “Undecided” finds the band covering Ella Fitzgerald and ripping it up, encouraging listeners onto the dance floor while “Trouble” shows itself as another clear highlight. Moody and rich, Sharp’s every note is purred out with a slinky sexuality as each instrument caresses her vocal, delivering a jam that is out of this world.

The Jitterbug Vipers are the real deal, crafting stunning music that reaches into the past for inspiration while giving it a contemporary spin. Each player is so gifted in their own right that, when put together as a group, only magic can happen. Phoebe’s Dream is a stellar work and shows tremendous promise for the future.

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