Night of the Hunter

Homage is harder than it looks

You hate to hold trying hard against someone, but on his smoothly polished (you might even say slick) debut, King for a Day, local swingster Hunter Sullivan turns in something so utterly well done--yet somehow lacking an attractive warmth--that it compels an examination of the entire lounge/swing phenomenon.

It's not that Sullivan, a former rocker and onetime singing waiter, hasn't done well. Far from it: King is full of impeccable playing and sounds savvy and urbane as it delivers standards such as Henry Mancini's "Charade" and able originals. It's not enough, however, to overcome what faces every revivalist, regardless of genre: the fact that the surviving archetypes are the most accomplished, the most enduring, masters of their form. The artists we remember are damn hard to match, let alone beat.

So it's really not fair to hoist Sullivan aloft on the petard of his own press--specifically, comparisons to Bobby Darin (though Sullivan still courts such parallels, putting two Darin songs, "Rainin'" and "Venice Blue," on King and using longtime Darin Producer Nik Venet). But even a cursory tour through Darin's catalog reveals that Sullivan has a long way to go in terms of developing as an artist. Although he acquits himself well on King's smoother songs ("Forget to Remember"), on the jumpier cuts like the title track (his own composition) and the hepped-up "Charade," he seems to be trying too hard; there's more than just a hint of blare.

Darin himself displayed the easy flexibility of a master, equally adept at all forms of pop: the silly novelty ("Splish Splash"), the knowing parody (check out his near-mockery of Nat King Cole's "Nature Boy," or "Hello Dolly," which must've sounded smarmy even in 1965 and would be unbearable today), and the smooth standard ("I Wonder Who's Kissing Her Now"). It's a confidence and command that Sullivan has yet to master.

Of course, this is his first stab at such fare, but you wouldn't know it from his liner notes. Written by somebody named Abraham Hiro, they're damn near Napoleonic in tone and are by far the worst thing about the album. "Where's my obligatory 'Beyond the Sea' rehash?" Hiro--who seems to assume a relationship between King for a Day and the rest of us not unlike that found between the monolith and the ape-men at the beginning of 2001--asks before disdainfully noting that "Sullivan has wisely left these kinds of artist panderings to the likes of (other) regional schlocksters."

Even if this isn't a direct slam on Johnny Reno--Sullivan's closest competitor for local lounge/swing dominance, who included "Sea" (a major hit for Darin back in 1960) on his debut, Swinging and Singing--it projects an attitude the rights to which Sullivan has not yet earned. Perhaps this is simply a misjudgment in Sullivan's career strategy, which seems to be following an '50s East Coast pop model, presenting him as a star like Darin and Frank Sinatra; whatever it is, it's most off-putting. King for a Day is a promising debut by a smart, talented guy who, if he doesn't start taking himself too seriously, may have a real future ahead of him.

Scene, heard
Speaking of Johnny Reno, the Fort Worth saxman and his Lounge Kings just returned from a two-week engagement in Paris, where they played a club called Chesterfield's. "It was real residency, like people used to play," Reno reports. "Chesterfield's isn't a jazz club, though. It's more of a roadhouse, kinda like [famed Austin blues club] Antone's. If you or I went in, we'd probably think, eh, just another Texas club, but to them it's a new thing."

The music of Reno and the Lounge Kings was new to Parisians as well. "They're into stuff like rock and roll, jazz, the blues, sure," Reno explains. "But they keep things pretty separate; they hadn't experienced the hybrid that we play--that combination that includes all those different elements--Goodman swing, Louis Prima jump, and the rest of it. We'd have all these French DJs and radio people come in and ask us, 'What is this stuff?'"

The trip exposed Reno and Co. to new things, too. "We got really tight, playing every night like that," Reno says. "And we were heavier on the swing and R&B stuff than we generally are when we play here. The great thing, though, was that we really were able to get into the rhythm of Paris life: up in the morning, have your jambon [a bread-intensive ham-and-cheese sandwich], see some sights, then play at night. We all got to take our wives or girlfriends, and everybody just had a wonderful time."

As part of the North Texas Music Festival, Fireworks will play a benefit for Sweet Relief at Club Clearview on Wednesday, October 15. The show is a bit of karmic payback for Fireworks guitarist Darin Lin Wood, who got help from SR when he was battling a chemical dependency. The evening will also see a "noisy auction" to benefit the same cause, followed by the NTMF's Topaz Awards, to be presented at the Dallas World Aquarium...Mary Cutrufello has signed a long-term six-disc contract with Mercury Records...The Texas Music Association, a nonprofit organization formed to support Texas musicians, will initiate Texas Music Month on October 9 at Club Dada and present their first annual North Texas Music Legends Award to longtime local monthly Buddy magazine. There will be a silent auction and entertainment by Rolling Stones cover band Sticky Fingers and Maylee Thomas and Texas Soul...Smokin' Joe Kubek and B'nois King will play Blue Cat Blues Friday, October 17...

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