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Review and photos by Johnny HallForming in 1993 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the Squirrel Nut Zippers helped usher in a new era of swing to music fans. Blending genres like Delta Blues, gypsy jazz and other styles, they became one of the biggest names in the neo-swing revival of the late 1990's. The Squirrel Nut Zippers played at President Clinton's second inaugural ball, the 1996 Olympics, and several late night TV shows. After disbanding in early 2000 and a brief reunion tour in 2007, lead singer Jimbo Mathus reformed the band with new members in 2016. Touted as the Squirrel Nut Zippers Revival, the band hit the road for the 20th anniversary of the platinum album, Hot.
The Zippers pulled their gypsy caravan into Ithaca, NY on April 17th to play at the Haunt. The diverse crowd filled the house to near capacity with standing room only inside, while some fans enjoyed the show from the deck overlooking the canal. The band came on stage in a march lead by the mustachioed madman, Dr. Sick, wielding a bass drum. The sight felt as if it were straight from Bourbon Street and we were witness to a strange and wonderful dirge of sorts. While the band made their way to their instruments, Jimbo was on the blowhorn like a carnival barker addressing the crowd. Opening up with "Karnival Joe" ( From Kokomo) the band played a set heavy with songs from the March 2018 release Beasts of Burgundy and 1996's Hot. Their 15-song set list contained crowd favorites like "Hell", "Put A Lid on It" and " The Ghost of Steven Foster" and new favorites like "Rusty Trombone" and "West of Zanzibar". The vocal duties were shared between Jimbo (guitar and banjo), Dr. Sick (violin, banjo, ukulele, guitar) and the magical Cella Blue. The music was loud and full with a three-piece brass section made of members Dave Boswell, Eddie King, and Hank West.
Leslie Martin tickled the ivory keys on the piano while Neilson Bernard III played the drum kit and the vibrant and ever smiling Tamara Nicolai plucked the strings on the upright bass. Watching the band perform was like watching a carnival sideshow with a fantastic soundtrack. The maniacal Jimbo Mathus engaged the crowd like a great circus Ringmaster, at one point even donning an oversize skull mask while Dr. Sick wore a monkey mask. The troupe ended their show for the night with "Plenty More" and forming a train to leave the stage, marche through the crowd in a conga line while playing their instruments. The Squirrel Nut Zippers show was a mix of sideshow and Mardi Gras, with a dash of Speakeasy- the perfect recipe for a great night.
I was speaking with Jimbo Mathus after the show and he mentioned to me he wanted the band to be the weirdest show on earth. I say move over P.T. Barnum, the Squirrel Nut Zippers are on the road and they have the Greatest Show on Earth!
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