The ’90s was a decade of maelstrom in the music industry. The decade that saw the death of hair metal also saw the rise of alt-rock, the second wave of ska and the swing revival, among many other genres. It was arguably the most eccentric of all decades in the history of American popular music. One of the bands that hit the big time in this era was Squirrel Nut Zippers, a Chapel Hill, NC band that straddled the line of swing music and New Orleans jazz. Their hit single “Hell” was ubiquitous on alternative radio in 1996.
Sunday night, the revamped version of Squirrel Nut Zippers rolled into the Center for the Arts of Homer, once the Homer Baptist Church, to hold a Palm Sunday service of their own, rapt with swing music, New Orleans style brass, Klezmer and old school crooning.
Riding the release of their first album in 18 years, Beasts of Burgundy, the new version of the Zippers provided the near sellout crowd with Vaudeville style entertainment and world class musicianship.
The band has been revamped after relocating to New Orleans and showcases some of the genre’s best musicians, including Dr. Sick, the spirited fiddler/multi-instrumentalist who stole the show with his outgoing and somewhat suggestive performance. Sick had a local connection to the show, Cortland musician Chris Merkley opened the show in the Community Space at the Center for the Arts of Homer. He documented his connection with Dr. Sick and the Squirrel Nut Zippers in a Facebook post on Friday:
A fun story about coincidences, if you believe in that sort of thing and have some free time…Many of you know about…
The Zippers kicked off the show with a rousing rendition of a new song, “Karnival Joe From Kokomo,” a song that would fit right in with the 1996 Zippers’ catalog. The remainder of the night was a mix of old and new songs mixed with many jokes. When attending a Zippers show, you’re not just going to dance, you’re going to laugh your ass off. Between songs, band leader Jimbo Mathus and Dr. Sick riffed off each other with a string of cringe-worthy Dad jokes and bad bird puns that had the audience simultaneously laughing and wincing.
The highlight of the night was when Mathus introduced the “dancing portion” of the night. Permission was asked for audience members, who had largely been seat-ridden most of the show, to get up and dance for the upcoming section of the show. Mathus often referred to the early Zippers’ catalog as “songs from the past century.” These songs comprised the “dancing portion” of the night and the crowd complied. The band ripped into “Bad Businessman,” “Hell” and the rousing Klezmer-style song “Ghost of Stephen Foster” to finish out their outstanding set.
The encore consisted of “Axman Jazz,” “Prince Nez,” “Plenty More” and another new song, “Hey Shango!,” a Cuban-style romp from their latest album that led to a Second Line exit for the band. The Second Line wound its way through the audience and made its way to the Community Space, where the band continued playing before settling in for pictures and autographs with fans.
The Center for the Arts of Homer proved to be a tremendous host for a show like this and the Squirrel Nut Zippers were very grateful for those who attended. And the Zippers proved that original American music is not dead.