By Nicole Itkin

It’s a slow chilly night, and the audience is quiet, sleepy: sipping their drinks, murmuring to each other about their drinks. Then, the band steps out on stage and plays their first notes, and instantly the energy’s soaring.

The band, Elana James (vocalist and fiddler), Whit Smith (guitarist and vocalist), and Jake Erwin (bass and background vocals) send us around the world with a diverse repertoire of western swing.

They’re all remarkably talented on their own, pleading, convincing with their instruments. And together, they’re magical.

There’s frequent interludes of applause throughout the songs: well-deserved, because the songs are nothing short of impressive all the way through.

They play a repertoire of some of the greats, and also some great songs they’ve written on their own. My favorites are a song Smith wrote, about “an old caveman painter.” It’s funny and whimsical, a tale of youth and innocence and discovery. I also loved a song James wrote, called “Near Mrs,” a song that came about after a failed attempt to catalog her former ex’s in a book (too emotionally taxing). Instead, she wrote about them all in a hilarious and (surprisingly) very kind song– giving each ex a 5-7 syllable description. (She added that neither Smith nor Ervin are in the song). The song is sad and sweet and soothing.

Erwin’s song choice for the night was “Kentucky Means Paradise.” He looked out into the audience, and asked: “Is anyone from Kentucky?” Birdland Jazz Club, a NYC Times Square jazz bar, went silent. He nodded, joked: “Alright, let’s do a different one!” But then they launched into the song anyway, and it was a fantastic rendition. Everyone in the audience– though no one was from Kentucky– found it fitting, loving and laughing along to lyrics like: “You take a K and an E an N and a T and a U and a C K Y, that spells Kentucky / But it means paradise / You take a chicken and you kill it / and you put him in a skillet and you fry him up a golden brown / That’s southern cookin’ and it’s mighty nice.”

The entire evening, they were having so much fun together, and it was so lovely to see. At one point, James picks up a drink and goes to take a sip, before stopping: “I’m sorry,” she says to Smith, “I picked up your drink.” He shakes his head: “I’m used to it by now.”

It’s remarkable how much fun they’re having throughout the set, and how much fun they’ve had, as they hit 25 years together as a band.

They’re so sharp and poised, hitting every entrance together. There’s not a note out of place, not a vocal out of step. They’re big and bold and fun and calm. It was a great evening! One I’d recommend for all– whether you’re from Kentucky or not.

Hot Club of Cowtown

Elana James (vocalist and fiddler)

Whit Smith (guitarist and vocalist)

Jake Erwin (bass and background vocals)

One of the most revered groups in Western Swing, the Hot Club of Cowtown is a virtuosic trio performing at the top of their game. Since forming in 1998, the group—an exuberant storm of vocals, fiddle, guitar, and bass—has won a wide range of awards, including both Western Swing Group of the Year and Western Swing Female of the Year (2015, Ameripolitan Music Awards); Best Music Group (2012, Village Voice Jazz and Pop Poll); and induction into the Texas Western Swing Hall of Fame (2004). 25 years after vocalist and fiddler Elana James joined forces with guitarist and vocalist Whit Smith, the group—which has performed the Glastonbury Festival, the National Folk Festivals of the US and Australia, Midsummer Night’s Swing at Lincoln Center, the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, and tours with Bob Dylan, The Avett Brothers, and Willie Nelson.

Birdland Jazz Club