From the January/February 2020 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY GREG CAHILL
To say Hot Club of Cowtown—guitarist Whit Smith, fiddler and vocalist Elana James, and upright bassist Jake Erwin—explores the past on their new album, Wild Kingdom (Gold Strike) is an understatement: one of the CD’s 11 originals, “Caveman,” imagines a prehistoric character who becomes famous for his cave paintings.
Wild Kingdom is a departure from the trio’s recent albums, which paid tribute to the musicians who have influenced it over the years, including hot-jazz innovators Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli, Western-swing legend Bob Wills, and The Band. The Austin, Texas–based trio often plays in the San Francisco Bay Area, which in the years after World War II served as home to Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys (as heard on the Tiffany Transcriptions series). So it’s only fitting that the HCOC gives a nod to the Golden State on the countrified “Tall Tall Ships,” an homage to the Pacific Coast Highway. The Old West informs “Billy the Kid,” on which Smith dishes warm chord comps, while a bronco rider crops up in “Rodeo Blues.”
Smith, who counts jazz great Charlie Christian as one of his heroes, shines throughout, whether he’s invested in a cover of the Les Paul/Mary Ford classic “How High the Moon” (one of four tracks produced by Lloyd Maines), playing tightly woven twin guitar-and-fiddle lines on “Loch Lomond,” or channeling Reinhardt on the manouche-flavored “Before the Time of Men.” His buoyant solo on the obscure 1930s film song “Three Little Words” is a blast of aural ecstasy.
Here, the group plays a song from the new album live in July 2019:
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This article originally appeared in the January/February 2020 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.