Renown for their well-choreographed live shows, friendly personalities, and seamless fusion of rock and roll and old-time big band sounds, the Voodoo Daddies' ascendance to neo-swing poster children was relatively quiet. Formed in the early '90s, the band's first two records were self-released on their own Big Bad Records. Each album sold thousands of copies with little mainstream fanfare. After their appearance in the fluke-success indie film Swingers, their burgeoning popularity attracted the interest of major labels, and yielded a self-titled major-label debut that was instantly successful. The album went on to sell over a million copies without the benefit of a radio single. (While there was a push for "You and Me and the Bottle Makes Three," it didn't often get picked up by radio stations).
Swing, however, has seen a noticeable decline in terms of sales and interest within the past year. The band is currently touring in support of their new record, This Beautiful Life, which has sold fewer than 50,000 copies in just over six weeks -- far from successful major-label numbers. "There's been a bit of a backlash against swing," BBVD trumpet player Glen "The Kid" Marhevka comments during a break from the band's tour. "The media built it up as a kind of tongue-in-cheek thing. They focused more on the costumes, which is not what it was originally about. The whole zoot suit fad was kind of dumb. But people come to our shows and see what we're doing, and they walk out thinking 'Wow, that was an amazing show.' "
Even so, there has been a palpable mockery of the more cartoonish aspects of swing. "The media has definitely latched onto the floppy hat and lingo aspects of the music and there are bands trying to cash in on that," Marhevka admits. "But people realize that we write good songs and that's what matters. We are not a product of this media hype."
Much of the blame bands place on neo-swing's popular decline seems to fall on, ironically, the swing dancers. They complain the dancers treat bands as mere background music (occasionally not even applauding), and drink water as opposed to alcohol, which aggravates the club owners. However, Marhevka doesn't see any noticeable affect on turnout for Big Bad Voodoo Daddy Shows. "I can see that this is true for some bands, but it isn't true for us. Where this is happening is in clubs that have created swing nights, hiring bands that are just playing Louis Jordan covers to cash in on the current popularity of swing.
"With us, we put on more of a rock show -- there is typically little room to move around. The bands that are having trouble with dancers are usually the ones who play covers and don't put on interesting shows, even though the musicians are often really good."
Initially a three-piece, BBVD continued to grow, adding piano and more brass. "Since our inception we've continually been adding musicians, Marhevka explains. "For example, we're up to five horns now. We've bumped up our arrangements, created advanced harmonies, and worked on writing better songs. Being on the road for as long as we have, we've all grown as people and performers, and we've really polished our act. Now I'm not afraid to play in front of the best musicians.
"I feel our new album is better and more complex than anything we've done previously. We've constantly invested in ourselves and I'm really proud of what we've done."
In addition to the music, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy performances integrate a light show with onstage antics.
Musically, the band's set little resembles traditional swing. Half of the members studied jazz and classical music in college while the others were raised on a strict diet of punk rock. "We listen to a wide variety of music. On the bus we listen to Primus, Ben Folds Five, Stevie Wonder, The Brand New Heavies, John Coltrane, Rage Against the Machine...too many to mention. Everyone in the band, though coming from different musical backgrounds, is very open-minded. We turn each other on to all sorts of eclectic stuff."
Clearly, BBVD is operating in a realm that is as divorced from swing as it is from any other form of music. Their hybrid of rock, jazz and numerous other genres combines with an engaging stage show that impresses crowds wherever they play. Last time the band hit town, they packed the Rialto Theater -- we can expect the same enthusiastic turnout when they return.
Big Bad Voodoo Daddy performs at 8 p.m. Saturday, December 18, on the Rialto Theatre stage, 318 E. Congress St. Advance tickets are available for $21 at Zips University, Hear's Music, Guitar's Etc., CD Depot and Strictly CDs. They'll be $25 the day of the show. For more information, call 798-3333.