Four Cool Cats
Swing is an under-rated musical genre in this country, Hollywood Slim tells Gerry Quinn. That’s why he and his Fat Cats are bringing their cool sound to Clare, to play Ennis’ Rock ‘n’ Rhythm Club.
In the Picador Book of Blues and Jazz amongst the vocabulary of Swing terms, a ‘cat’ is defined as “a musician in a swing orchestra” or “people who like swing music”. ‘Swing’ can be applied to either jazz or blues and to ‘swing out’ means to embellish a melody in rhythm. One of the ‘swingingest’ bands in the country, Hollywood Slim & The Fat Cats, do their ‘thang’ around the clubs of Dublin on a regular basis. But this Saturday night, they play their first ever Ennis gig, when they appear at the One Mile Inn – the Ennis Rock n’ Rhythm Club. A four-piece combo fronted by Slim himself – he’s described as having a distinctive soul-drenched voice and apparently he plays a razor sharp harmonica. He’s joined by father and son Papa Hynes and Junior Hynes on drums and guitar respectively and the remainder of the quartet comprises the distinctively named Reverend Priestley on bass.
I asked the band’s front man about its origins and where the individual members come from.
“We formed in the spring of 2004”, replies Slim. “I’m actually from Holywood, Co. Down – hence the name – and the rest of the band are from Dublin.
Mr. Slim believes that this band’s sound wasn’t to be heard in Ireland until now, so he and the guys formed for that very reason.
“Most of the blues bands you go to see in Ireland have the same British blues influence which is kind of loud and rocky. So we decided that we wanted to do a more jazzy laidback kind of blues – a West Coast sound. We’d all been in bands before and we did the rocky stuff and we were fed up with it so we delved a wee bit deeper in.”
British blues, which was made popular in the ‘60s by the likes of The Yardbirds, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and The Rolling Stones, has its roots in the Delta blues and in Chicago, whereas West Coast blues borrowed much of its swing tempo and rhythm from post-war Texas blues. During the classic period of West Coast in the ‘40s and ‘50s, many great blues names like T-Bone Walker, Amos Milburn, Lowell Fulson, Pee Wee Crayton and Charles Brown all made their homes in California and most of the action centred around the San Francisco Bay area and Los Angeles. Unlike other blues forms, it has a more sophisticated urban sound with smooth pronounced vocals and jazz influences.
“We do a lot of material based on Hollywood Fats. He just had the one record and it was a classic album,” says Slim of another West Coast legend.
So when did he first hear the blues?
“It goes back a long, long time. Van Morrison probably turned me onto the blues first,” he admits. “After listening to Van, I would get albums by artists that he covered like Sonny Boy Williamson and Leadbelly and so on. I got into it that way. I was also into Paul Rogers who was a great singer with rock band Free. All those blues-based rock singers, really, turned me on, to get deep into it and to find out where it all came from”, says Slim. “It’s a long process.”
At present, Hollywood Slim and The Fat Cats are preparing to record their second CD, a follow up to Leavin’ For Memphis, their debut.
“We recorded the first album in an hour and a half,” laughs Slim.
“It was one of the fastest recorded albums in history”, he comments. “You see, we had to get it out before the Cork Jazz Festival, at which we were booked to play. We had nothing on disc as we had just formed and we went in and recorded it straight off in just one or two takes for each song,” explains the singer. “We didn’t even have time to hear it back. But with the next album, we’ll spend enough time to make sure that we have a really good album with original songs. We’ll probably augment it with a keyboard player and a bit of brass as well.”
On the subject of blues in general, Slim is not happy with the attention the genre gets on the airwaves.
“People who are exposed to it really, really like it,” he says. “But RTE don’t play it at all. You just don’t get in on the national airwaves. John Kelly’s ‘Mystery Train’ is being axed now and he was the only one who used to play it. [Charlie Hussey’s Bluestrain on Dublin’s Anna Livia FM is a radio programme dedicated to the blues but with coverage in the greater Dublin area only]. You don’t get to see it on television either, so people don’t even know how to access it.”
And yet there’s a thriving, if somewhat underground, live blues scene in Ireland. The Irish Blues Club meets every Tuesday night at JJ Smyth’s pub on Aungier Street in Dublin and they feature a different band every week. The Fat Cats play a residency in the same venue on each Friday of this month and, according to Slim, “we’ve also played at the Burlington Hotel in Ballsbridge, twice a week for the last year.”
In the meantime, Clare’s swingin’ cats can experience the band’s cool sounds this weekend. So what can we expect to hear at the Ennis gig?
“You’ll be hearing West Coast blues. There’ll be a little bit of Chicago blues in there as well and we’ll be wearing our loud funky hot shirts to keep the atmosphere going. One of the reasons I formed this band is because I couldn’t go to see this type of music anywhere myself. So it’s a good night out for me too!”