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Lee Ann Westover and Strange Cargo

She loves to rock; that's her dirty little secret. Lee Ann Westover loves to rock.

It's true that she comes from a straight swing background festooned with snoods and double-basses. It's true that she was in The Camaros. It's true that she can jazz standard it with the rest of them. She can sing a sweet song and pose provocatively in a hat. She can hold an audience of hipsters, she can talk the lingo, and she can give them what they want. But she loves to rock.

She loves the version of "Fixing a Hole" which I believe burns George Clinton's ears each time its played. She loves the fact that the band has never played "Centerpiece" the same way – ever. She loves the fact that Mr. Hanky IS the reincarnation of Bob Wills.

She loves to rock: to be alive in the music. Carpe D-Flat.

Fortunately STRANGE CARGO is there every Sunday, backing her up, dishing out soul with a sort of recklessness that is sadly missed in this age of the perfectly tailored set, of parsimonious banter. Strange Cargo just goes – there. They are the analog beast slouching towards a digital Bethlehem. They are the "not quite dirty, not quite dozen".

The core band is composed of Lee Ann, David, Byron, Pete, and Skip. Lee Ann's vocals and presence lay a solid groundwork. She comes off kinda cute, kinda cuddly. There is an odd twinkle in her eye. Her right eye. I find it rather disturbing. Not as disturbing as her voice. Her voice disturbs me in an altogether different way. Most vocalists who can sing spend their time singing scales and scales of notes hoping to point out the obvious: I CAN SING! DIG ME! I CAN SING! Then what follows is such a swell of low to high notes that the listener is left searching for Dramamine. There is none of that with Lee Ann. Granted, on "Yodeling Blues' there is an aspect of "how the fuck can she yodel? The difference is that the yodeling is there because it needs to be. The song IS called "Yodeling Blues" after all. Yet there are no back handed gestures to the band to keep it low so the audience will observe with reverence the singers talent. There is simply Lee Ann, yodeling her ass off, with Strange Cargo just going and going – there.

David is the drummer. You might have seen him with other bands. You might not. If you have, you'd remember. His touch can only be described as tastee. Mis-spelling and all. I believe he is one of those jazz types you keep hearing about – but I think he has a Bonham poster somewhere in his apartment.

Byron plays bass. He is pure uncut funk. After five minutes of living inside his deep, deep bass pocket you will come to realization that your ass, indeed, is moving. You will remark, much like God on the seventh day, that it is good. He is not simply a funk machine, our Byron. He wrote "Baby's been Good to Me" which is a song every dude wished he'd wrote, and every chick wishes it had been written about her. It is a straight up sexy song which in the fiction of memory makes you believe that with the aid of this song Stacey Maroni would have given it up back there in 1979.

Pete plays guitar. He leans into it like a hanging curveball. The first couple of times I saw Pete play I was mistaken about his prowess. I thought he was just another jazz mercenary milking the swing circuit for some extra bread to satiate the BIG HOLLOWBODY habit most jazz dudes have. I heard him toss off a few dissonant runs, watched him spread his hand into some ungodly seven fret stretch, and observed his good posture and passed judgement: sure, the dude can certainly operate his instrument, but he can't play. Then the song ended and the band went into a Cole Porter tune. Suffice it to say that by the time the song was over both my fists her raised, both my arms were pumping maniacally, and through many layers of nicotine and phlegm my voice cried out, "Cole Porter Rules!" That's the kinda shit that Pete does.

Skip is the dude on pedal steel. He's the guy in the corner who lays in when it's needed and lays low when he's not. His voodoo control over ambience is so powerful that the guy could make it rain if he put his mind to it. Best of all, he's been doing this long enough that he's got a bit of a sense of humor about it all. I've heard him throw "Third Stone from the Sun" into a swing standard. I've heard him throw the theme from the Simpsons into Bob Wills. There is nothing the guy can't (or won't) play. It just sucks that he's on tour for another five months.

The guest musicians cycle through like lovers caught in a layover on their way from one place to another. You can never tell if Russell is going to be there to do that sick shit he does with his violin, or whether Vanessa will conjure up a trinity of Salome, Basheba, and Patsy Cline, if Walter will go red or play his grandfather's ukulele, if Todd might cut loose like Halloween when he screeched like a teenage girl ( and meant it), if Matt M. will raise his eyebrows and flatpick at 93 million per second. All you can ever know is that the overall effect will be that of a one night stand at a Ramada Inn when only the sound of passing jets can possibly mask the animal noises coming out of your own awed mouth.

I can not stress how ALIVE this band is, how in the moment, how fresh. I think the band is as surprised by the songs as the audience. The band truly enjoys not only playing but listening to each other. I mean, why else would they be doing it? It ain't the bread. It ain't the prestige. It's to be near something that is good. The band members keep each other like talismans, like bags of juju which ward off evil. Weird thing is, the juju works. Strange Cargo is about as far from evil as you can get while still existing in this stupid plane of reality. They are holy water drawn from a swamp of Britny Spears, they are a holy grail in the A&R cabinet of dixie cups. Their originals play like songs imprinted on your psyche and their covers sound very, very little like the original. Their musicianship is enough to send any weekend warrior player into rehab. Yet they don't lord it over you. They don't diva up the place. They just show up and rock out, everytime thankful that people keep coming. They are the only band I know that realizes that the audience doesn't need to be there – and for that they are humble, grateful. While rocking.

Always rocking.

Harlan Longstreet – Jan 1999


Band bookings and link updates:

Contact Jack Grace: / 212.591.0261 (email preferred)


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