Austin's real lounge lizards

Though T-shirts and joints of cheap Mexican pot still typify the Austin music-scene ambience, dinner jackets and expensive cigars are the style at Cedar Street, a downtown jazz bar that boasts a long line of patrons awaiting admission every weekend, all of them eager to quaff martinis and tap their toes to the rhythms of regular attractions like 8 1/2 Souvenirs and The Lucky Strikes. When the Continental Club in South Austin hosted a Juan Garcia Esquivel listening party during one happy hour back in July, sharp-dressed dudes and dames packed the joint, clamoring to have their pictures taken with a life-sized cardboard cut-out of the kitschy Mexican-born genius composer who was once a favorite of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin.

As "cocktail music" becomes the latest rage to be chewed up and spit out from the voracious maw of pop culture, Austin has suddenly and unexpectedly begun dancing to the sophisticated ring of toasted martini glasses. This decidedly down-home musical community, forever celebrated for its blue-eyed blues and post-honky-tonk country, has nurtured a handful of swinging, urbane combos such as The Naughty Ones, 8 1/2 Souvenirs, and The Lucky Strikes--all three of which offer inventive takes on the swing thing that just might outlast the fad.

"I think [the music] touches an audience that usually isn't so obvious--people who want music that isn't so loud, so they can just hang out and listen," explains Olivier Giraud, the Paris-born leader of 8 1/2 Souvenirs, which has just released its debut album, a live recording of European-styled hot jazz and crooning titled Happy Feet. With its strong European accent, the music sounds like it could have come from almost anywhere but Central Texas, though most of the band's members are veterans of the local rockabilly scene.

In a town that frequently wears its traditions like a hair shirt, the swing thing is a refreshingly different breeze. But after years of cosmic cowboys, bar-band blues, sincere singer-songwriters, and countless shades of college rock, the sharp suits of the swing thing seem to fit a little strangely in the self-proclaimed "Live Music Capital of the World." The Naughty Ones were the first to emerge more than three years ago, led by country and blues singer and harmonica player Ted Roddy, whose neo-trad country band Teddy and the Talltops did time in Dallas during the early '80s (and included Jim Heath in his pre-Reverend Horton Heat days). With perhaps the cheekiest approach of all the Austin swingers, they're "the kind of band you probably would have heard at a Jack Ruby nightclub," Roddy figures.

The band's 1994 album, I Dig Your Voodoo, features '60s go-go rhythms played with a Las Vegas leer--a bongo-driven Rat Pack soundtrack with a saxophone siren that recalls a time when public expressions of sexuality were still largely suggestive--reinforced in their live shows by the writhing of the band's scantily clad resident dancer, Donna Pearl, from behind a back-lit scrim. Their regular Tuesday night stand at the Continental Club (whose Continental Records put out their LP) has packed the house for three years running, summoning up nostalgia for an era when naughty was still good, clean, fun.

The usually rootsy Continental Club has also nurtured 8 1/2 Souvenirs, whose Happy Feet was recorded there and also released on the Continental label, though the group's musical Continental flair is much more the Left Bank of the Seine than the South Side of the Colorado. Guitarist-singer-songwriter Giraud had migrated in the late '80s from France to Austin, playing rockabilly before landing a Continental happy-hour gig in which he could explore the music he grew up with--the Gypsy guitar of Django Reinhardt, and such European composers as Nino Rota, Serge Gainsbourg, and Paolo Conte.

Recruiting the rockabilly rhythm section of Todd Wulfmeyer (upright bass) and Adam Berlin (drums), the band took its name from the Federico Fellini movie 8 1/2--whose Rota-composed theme was an early staple of their repertoire--and quickly gained a following, as well as further members in pianist Glover Gill and singer Kathy Kiser, who came by to sit in and ended up joining the group.

"They all stepped right in and made this music their own," explains Giraud. The shift from the styles they previously played, however, was "like switching from being a bank clerk to being a circus performer."

Happy Feet--which features material by Reinhardt, Conte, and Gainsbourg, as well as four 8 1/2 Souvenirs originals--is certainly a toe-tapping experience, one unlike just about anything else in today's marketplace. "I hate the word, but it's kind of intellectual music," Giraud says. "The swing transpires in what we do, but what makes this band different, I think, is the international aspect of it. It's a mix of American, French, and Italian. I used to call it 'stray swing' because it really wanders."

Quickly turning into a semi-regular booking at Club Clearview in Deep Ellum, 8 1/2 Souvenirs has already become something of a sensation in Austin, against what might seem like the usual local odds. "When we started here, there was no audience for what we do," Giraud recalls. "We and the audience are working together at building up this thing, and by now, it has a life of its own."

While it's the challenges and adventure that attracted 8 1/2 Souvenirs to their particular brand of swing, they are not unaware of their fortuitous timing. "There is a big swing revival happening everywhere," Gill says. "And yes, we're willing to take advantage of that."

If The Naughty Ones recall Vegas lounges in the high-roller heyday, and 8 1/2 Souvenirs suggests a smoky jazz cafe on the Montmartre in gay Paree, The Lucky Strikes suggest a postwar Italian supper club on Manhattan's fabled West 52nd. Crooning songs written in the Tin Pan Alley tradition, frontman Craig Marshall is nonetheless another roots rocker who had a yen to try something different when his country duo The Delta Rays broke up--after his singing partner Maura Boudreau left Austin to tour with Nanci Griffith.

"As a singer and songwriter, I always dug the sophistication of the classic swing material and the great crooners," Marshall explains. Taking his cue from the jazzier, small-combo work by Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett, Marshall began exploring the notion of writing his own "swingin' lover" music, as he calls it. "I started fooling around with these chords and song structures, and finally got good enough that I could write songs in this style."

The band he recruited as The Lucky Strikes were also country rockers, yet they effectively worked themselves into a swing combo with a finesse that invites favorable comparison with last year's jazz crooning gem, the unearthed 1962 recording of Sinatra and Sextet: Live in Paris. "We're really trying to do it true to the songs and the style," Marshall says. But Marshall still can't resist at least a bit of a joke: "My idea is to do a tour where we just play Italian restaurants." As such, The Lucky Strikes will appear at the Sambuca restaurants in Dallas in January.

Yet another Austin act, Euripides Pants--whose members hail from the underground rock scene--has an album in the can, swinging with a kitschy '60s sensibility. Meanwhile, the Continental Club has already mounted a weekend swing festival, while the hipster set continues flocking to hear such lounge acts as Bobby Doyle at Ego's in South Austin and Jay Clark at The Carousel Lounge in near North Austin.

"Who would have thought it?" Marshall says with a chuckle. "Austin, Texas--the new lounge capital.

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Rob Patterson