One of the greatest things about music is its ability to transport the listener to another time and place, but with social media and technology proliferating flash in the pan musical trends, it’s only natural that crowds would start gravitating towards the type of timeless sounds that date back to when a Facebook was a collection of black and white portraits.
For those looking to journey into the revelry of the Roaring Twenties, there’s no better venue in Austin than the Eastside Showroom (1100 E 6th St; 512.467.4280). Since 2009 the East 6th street cocktail bar has served as a breeding ground for a tight-knit scene of Austinites who breathe life into genres of music that were once ubiquitous, but are now rarely heard outside of old movies. The venue’s small corner stage hosts pre-WWII music ranging from obscure jazz, to standards from golden era Hollywood films, to experimental original songs indebted to the sounds of Eastern Europe. Any given night at the Showroom is a stumble through a different decade dating to the heyday of most listeners’ grandparents.
“We wanted to create an environment where people felt like they were stepping back in time,” says Mickie Spencer, interior designer and owner of East Side Showroom. “To somewhere they’d never really been, but had thought about. The music elevated that to another level.”
In the early years of the Showroom, musicians claimed weekly and monthly residencies and when their bandmates couldn’t make the gigs they’d often create new groups for one-off shows. Like any good jazz scene, Austin’s is an incestuous one, so pulling together a few friends to perform standards wasn’t hard. Two of these impromptu collaborations have become regular acts at the Showroom: the East Side Dandies and the Hollywood Revue.
The East Side Dandies are a hot jazz sextet inspired by the sounds and energy of the mid-1920s, when the booming economy led to high-spirited melodies and horn players gravitated toward more complex syncopated arrangements. The most famous examples of this style include Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five and Bix Beiderbecke and His Gang, whose bandleader died before achieving much recognition, but whom jazz historians applaud for his rebellious and uncompromising character.
“Hot jazz isn’t a term that a lot of people are familiar with, and even when I got into this it wasn’t a term I’d heard before,” says Dandies tenor banjo player Westen Borghesi. “It isn’t exactly a particular style—it’s sort of an attitude, a feel.”
Despite coming from a metal and hip-hop background, Borghesi is a constant presence in Austin’s pre-WWII music scene—and at seven feet tall he’s hard to miss. He can also be seen performing with the White Ghost Shivers, Thrift Set Orchestra, and Oxblood Meridians, in addition to helming the turntables at the beloved Second Sunday Sock Hop. “The dancing is really important. There’s a great camaraderie between the dancers and the musicians in the jazz scene now,” says Borghesi.
Another band that first premiered at the Showroom is the Hollywood Revue, which formed when ukulele player Brian Rise’s Hawaiian quartet, Combo Mahalo, had a schedule conflict. Rise pulled together a few friends, including vocalist Kacy Todd (referred to by the band as “America’s Sweetheart”), and the Revue was born. The group dresses exclusively in formal black and white and plays music popularized in 1930s films.
“So many of those songs came out in a musical with Gene Kelly or Judy Garland, and then if it was a hit, Glenn Miller or Benny Goodman had a recording out within a month of the movie release,” says Rise. “A lot of the great songwriters introduced their material that way to the American public.”
While the East Side Dandies and the Hollywood Revue focus on reviving vintage songs, the seven members of Wino Vino take a more creative approach by appropriating styles like Eastern European folk music and Balkan brass for original compositions. When the band formed in 2007, their kitchen sink mentality of combining different genres resulted in an avant-garde style, but over time they’ve reeled in the sound to become one of the tightest groups in town. It’s earned them a fervently dedicated following.
“Sometimes people will go nuts and start dancing on tables and moving the furniture. They’ll get rowdy, and you don’t really know what to do,” says Wino Vino singer and mandolin player Forrest Johnston.“When the Showroom first opened up people would actually crowd-surf.”
With fans exuding the type of enthusiasm usually reserved for punk rock shows, it’s safe to say that even as this music becomes more obscure outside of Austin, our throwback music scene will continue to roar.