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Lyricist Lounge

The Local Cocktail-Hour Highballs of the Swingin’ Swamis Add a Female Singer and Keep the Vibe Chilled

Jefferson Jackson Steele
BARFLIES: (from left) Zak Fusciello, Eddie Chabot, Snackie Hillman, Chris Bavaria, John Dierker, and Melissa Sharlat find their own nuevo-retro groove as the Swingin' Swamis.

By Ryan Boddy | Posted 3/23/2005

The six members of the Swingin’ Swamis, lounging in the basement bar of a Mount Vernon nightspot, collectively want to make something nice and sparkling clear. They are not a swing band. “There’s a cacophony of language going on with our name,” bassist Eddie Chabot says. “It’s enlightened bachelor pad music. Swamis are supposed to be enlightened, but it’s loungey.”

The Baltimore sextet unveils Sookie Sookie, its third CD of eclectic classics and originals, this week. Ranging from mellow lounge standards to Isley Brothers funk and originals penned by founding keyboardist/guitarist Snackie Hillman, Sookie displays the Swamis’ talent for seamlessly mixing genres as well as showcasing new vocalist Melissa Sharlat on many of its 16 tracks.

Cuts from the band’s new album point to its members’ familiarity with multiple styles. John Dierker’s manic sax marks the opening strains of the record in the Hillman-penned “Down for the Count” and swiftly gives way to guitarist Chris Bavaria’s adroit finger-picking. All of Sookie’s songs display improvisation in all the right places, with Dierker pressing his case most effectively on the Jimmy Forrest classic “Night Train.” Sharlat’s sultry vocals spice up the group’s lounge chameleon appeal. Latin grooves one minute give way to Rat Pack cool seconds later.

In fact, Sookie Sookie achieves what most cover-heavy albums can’t: sounding fresh and true to the originals without sounding like a high-school dance in the process. There’s just enough bawdiness in Dierker’s sax work and Sharlat’s singing to avoid the saccharine, cut with enough restraint to keep the vibe from feeling cheeky and contrived. Hillman’s focus on the more burlesque side of 1950s, ’60s, and early ’70s keeps the mood randy, with Bavaria’s nimble guitar and Chabot and drummer Zak Fusciello’s rhythm section setting a laid-back ease befitting the material.

“We just try to do things that sound interesting to us,” Bavaria says. “And find little gems that haven’t been run into the ground to resuscitate.”

The classic tunes are all familiar to the ear, and Hillman’s originals feel comfortable next to them. The band presently creates set lists from about 125 songs, its ear for a timeless tune near flawless. “We bring songs to the table democratically just to keep from playing songs that some of us hate individually,” Chabot says.

And the band culls through this motley mix of songs without stretching themselves thin in the process. Herbie Hancock’s Cantaloupe Island meets Henry Mancini and Doris Day effortlessly, and while listening you never feel jostled by the gear change.

“A lot of times we’ll cover a song that we think is relatively obscure and it’ll end up being used in a commercial,” Hillman says. Joe Davis and Osvaldo Farrés’ “Perhaps Perhaps Perhaps” and the Isley Brothers’ “It’s Your Thing,” both featured on Sookie Sookie, have appeared in TV ads.

And this knack with a sterling tune has been with the band since the beginning. Hillman founded the band in 1997 with a revolving cast of players that has slowly coalesced into a lineup that feels permanent. Sharlat and Bavaria are the most recent additions to the group. (“The current members are lifers,” Chabot says.) While many members have other projects, the Swamis are a hard-working band playing a rigorous schedule of live dates and practicing at least once a week, all on top of various day jobs. For example, Sharlat occasionally does musical theater, and was in the 14 Karat Cabaret’s recent production of Dearest Mommie: A Musical Ode to Joan, starring as Christina.

And it’s approaching the season for one of its steadiest gigs. The band’s deft melding of eras makes it popular among wedding planners; 15 of the whopping 90 dates the Swamis played last year were weddings.

“Our clients are usually people who’ve seen us before,” Hillman says. “We get hired by a lot of artsy people in their mid-20s to mid-30s for weddings. They know it won’t be the same recycled DJ wedding tunes but it won’t upset their family members. What we do bridges age gaps.

“We’re so used to doing it that it’s like any other show,” Hillman continues. “You have to work out the formalities, like when to announce that the cake is being cut and that sort of thing, but otherwise it’s just like any other gig.”

Besides, they have a little fun with it, too. “We always get a lot of people who ask, ‘What’s that song?’” Chabot says. “That’s unusual at a wedding. It’s like a musicology experiment. We get to sort of educate our audiences and still have fun.”

Just, you know, don’t call them a wedding band. “We don’t do things the way your typical wedding band does,” Hillman says. “We’re quirky but we’re not a wedding band in traditional sense. We’ve run the gamut on different types of venues played. We played a shitty pub one night and the Kennedy Center the next one time.”

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