International modern swing groups like Caravan Palace and Parov Stelar have been drawing the attention of music and dance lovers worldwide for the last decade, and, as we enter the sure-to-be-termed “Roaring 2020’s,” it’s about time for a resurgence.
Neo-swing band Cherry Poppin’ Daddies are bringing their own brand of genre-dynamic jazz back to Spokane on Saturday for a concert with the Spokane Symphony. The Eugene, Oregon-based group, widely known for their hit “Zoot Suit Riot,” is a subversive, punk-forward cocktail of jazz and ska with a swing finish that sends listeners back to the 1940s.
You could expect to raise eyebrows with a name like Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, but, as lead vocalist and principal guitarist Steve Perry remembers the late-’80s punk-rock origin of the band’s name, that was exactly the point.
“When we started out, we lived in a big punk-rock house with a bunch of other musicians, like a crazy amount of musicians. All the bands practiced in the garage. We decided we were going to do our first show together. The other two bands had names, and we didn’t. But the poster needed to go up,” Perry said on Tuesday in a phone interview.
“So everyone’s sitting in the living room drinking beers, all these punk-rock kids sitting in a living room. I had a Viper Jive record on, this kind of hot jazz, and the song goes, ‘I’ll be your cherry something daddy,’ and one of the guys in the other band goes, ‘Your name should be the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies.’
“It’s a lot harder to understand the name now that the counter-cultural mentality has faded,” Perry continued. “But in that time, the idea was you wanted to choose a band name that would attract other punk-rock kids and keep others at bay. So we said, ‘OK, put it on the poster,’ and that was it.”
The band’s music is often upbeat and danceable, but the tone of the lyrics might surprise careful listeners. You might not enjoy it, but much like the band’s name, that’s the point.
“I want more than just entertaining people, making people feel good. Of course, we do plenty of that. People can dance to it, you can turn your mind off and just listen to the pretty music and dance,” Perry said. “Ninety-nine percent of people are just going to enjoy it and say, ‘Wow, that was fun, that’s it, the end, I like the way that made me feel, I like the beat, I like that harmony.’
“But if there are people minded like me, who like the stories and the thought and the work, they can really get something from it. You don’t have to have one without the other. You can give something to people that is really heartfelt and really considerate, but you’re also just handing them a great night out.”
Perry sees genre as a set of tools. “I write in a lot of different genres depending on the theme,” he said. “Sometimes working in an opposite genre or an unexpected genre can add impact and power to what you’re saying. Because if you’re just trying to go right along with the theme, it goes through as undigested calories. But if you kind of shock people, like, ‘Oh, I didn’t expect it to go that way there,’ it sticks.”
Perry thinks of himself primarily as a writer of stories and the music as just another character in the story of each song: “I’m writing a song called ‘Waterman’ now about a successful petroleum executive who leaves his family to become a beach bum. He leaves his wife and kids, walks out of his job and goes and lives in the South Seas.
“I got that idea when I was writing this kind of beachy, sunny, reggae vibe, and that gave me the picture in my mind of this guy. The music is a character in the songs. Sometimes it runs against what I’m saying. For instance, in ‘Waterman,’ the music is against the idea that this guy is a bad person. But the words bring out this romantic delusion of a selfish life on the beach.”
When Perry began to build the band’s setlist in collaboration with David Armstrong, the Spokane Symphony’s assistant principal second violin and the composer tasked with arranging the orchestral charts for the concert, his goal was to strike a balance between some of the Daddies’ lesser-known story-songs and more upbeat swing tunes.
The setlist for Saturday’s concert will feature many of Perry’s story-songs or musical vignettes. He said these are best suited to the added depth the symphony will bring. “We’re known for swing, so I had to choose enough swing music, but I also chose stuff where more could be brought out with the symphony,” he said.
“Songs like ‘Skyline Drive’ and ‘Lovers Understand’ where the support of the symphony really brings more power to it, whereas with the swing tunes, it could feel less coherent. It doesn’t add as much. When you’re playing rhythmic dance music, it’s a little harder, not impossible, but harder to integrate the symphony.”
Perry was adamant that the symphony and band should work seamlessly together: “We do really want to integrate,” he said. “We don’t want anyone asking, ‘Why is this rock band playing with the symphony?’
“We’re working hard to make a show that has lots of elements that people will be able to appreciate on different levels. I’m hoping people will give it a chance because it’s going to be very good. We’re a very, very good live band.”
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