the loud bassoon concert scene

Keely Smith @ House of Blues, Los Angeles, USA
24 September 1998

It is very rare for me to leave my protective bubble and venture into "Los Angeles Night Life." I'm happily square, but there is simply no way to feel good about yourself when everyone around you is insanely cool, impeccably dressed, fabulously wealthy, and oppressively good-looking (not to mention competition-level dancers). Most of the places people talk about would never let me in even if I knew or was someone famous, and pretty much everywhere else is way too expensive (a $4 glass of water is not uncommon). So I stick to the places without six-figure bouncers, if I bother to go out at all.

So it is a rare night indeed that finds me standing in line at the House of Blues to get in to see Keely Smith. But dammit, it's Keely Smith! Her first performance outside of Las Vegas in God knows how long, billed as "A Tribute to Louis Prima," the man she divorced in 1961 for "extreme mental cruelty."

Lest I pretend to be some long-standing Keely Smith devotee, I only recently came to a more than passing knowledge of her music. However, I've also come to understand her position in the American cultural scene, which is strong enough to provide her with her own theater in Vegas where she has performed for years to SRO crowds. (Of course, Debbie Reynolds also claims to have SRO crowds, but when I stayed at her hotel last summer I discovered that hyperbole goes with the territory.)

Until last night, I'd only heard the songs she recorded with Louis Prima, but it was easy to tell from those few tunes that Keely could swing.

So back to the line outside the House of Blues. As my companion and I grumble about the $10 valet parking fee, we notice something that falls into the "Only in Los Angeles" category: a well-dressed, good-looking dude standing by the box office with a handful of headshots, hoping to be discovered. The man needed a Teflon ego because everyone was making cracks at him. I felt bad for the kid and wanted to take him aside and say, "Go home with your dignity, son, 'cause you ain't gonna get discovered at the House of Blues."

But the way things work out here, in three weeks we'll read about this guy landing a plum role on "Dawson's Creek," so I kept my mouth shut and secretly filed it away under "Demoralizing Things I Can Do When I Finish My Script." It's probably a lot more desperate for a writer to pull a stunt like that than an actor, but hey, you gotta break into the biz somehow.

Since this was my first HOB experience, I don't know if the other branches of Dan Aykroyd's musical institution are the same, but I was impressed. The place looks a lot smaller on the outside than it seems on the inside, with a huge floor, several bars, numerous levels, and one astonishing mechanical "event" that happens just before the show starts. There's this giant metal rectangle that juts out over the main floor like some giant metal rectangle jutting out and waiting for something to happen. It slowly splits open to reveal the restaurant above, transforming the restaurant into a giant balcony (you have to see it to understand).

If at first I thought HOB was just an oversized imitation of smaller venues, this confirmed my hope that it would instead be an intricately-devised, Disney-like tourist trap. I was right!

Now for the concert.

The opening act, the Jumping Jives, was energetic but way too self-consciously trendy to actually be good (even the name is self-consciously trendy). The set was entirely swing, which I genuinely enjoy, but it didn't seem joyful as much as it was derivative of the 8,000 other swing bands that do it better. I kept imagining the backstage chatter of the guys saying things like, "This is our big chance, so we better make it good."

After three songs the novelty and excitement wore off, despite a very receptive audience, and I wanted them to shut up. Look, swing is fine, but the swing that endures, like Keely Smith, has some emotion behind it. These bands often attempt to write original songs "in the style of," and often end up sounding like idiots. Jumping Jives had one in particular called "Wrong Side of the Tracks" that tried to do the slow, femme-fatal, leering sexual metaphor thing but failed miserably.

However, I still enjoyed them more than the way-past-their-heyday Steel Pulse, who opened for a concert I saw ages ago (I forgot the concert, but I still remember Steel Pulse), and since I was there to have a good time, and everyone else was too, I couldn't help but bob my head and tap my toes in my square, C3PO-esque manner.

Finally, Keely's band started setting up. This took some time, since the band had a 12-piece horn section, a grand piano (and an absolutely grand pianist!), a full drum kit, a guitarist, and one of those big cello-looking things that Tom the Cat played when he sang, "Is you is or is you ain't my baby" (do they call that a bass?).

Then Keely came on. What an adorable cutie-pie! She's gained some weight and added a few years since those album covers, but the girlish pixie haircut and the girlish pixie voice remain.

The set was truly fantastic, in part thanks to Keely's personality, which shone through every perfectly-sung note. She bantered constantly with the audience, gave shouts to dozens of friends and family in the room, told slightly raunchy jokes, and even ran film clips of favorite moments with Prima, Dean Martin, Robert Mitchum, and her children.

It was an oddly intimate night, with Keely holding back tears at the genuinely enthusiastic reception, and an audience of all ages and descriptions. She tried to make eye contact with everyone (and unless she has cataracts, she looked at me directly at least once – gotta be the hair), and at one point handed the microphone to audience members to sing "When the Saints Go Marching In."

The set list was filled with standards that are remarkable for their simplicity, brevity, and impact. There is simply no way that the Jumping Jives could ever write a song as perfectly realized as "That Old Black Magic," which can't be more than 3 minutes long. Or as goofy and light as "Sing, Sing, Sing." OK, so I don't know the names of most of the other songs she sang, but by gum I didn't care! I was having fun!

She did give the best rendition of "Looking Through the Eyes of Love" I've ever heard – far better than the atonal, trembling nightmare I once heard at a wedding, and which I repayed by jerking off into the wedding cake.

I noticed how offhand Keely Smith's singing is, how relaxed and unpretentious. Apparently, she had no formal training – she was plucked from obscurity by Prima at the age of 15 – and it's a nice contrast to the overly-operatic divas of the modern age.

Her lightweight handling of these songs is great, but also something of a weakness, because she clearly lacks the vocal power to knock our socks off and render us speechless, as Etta James could. But I don't think that's her intention. Keely Smith just sings. And that, my friend, swings.

Review by Crimedog