Quirky Zippers finish tour in Foxboro

A review of the Squirrel Nut Zippers at Showcase Live! on December 10

, Contributing Writer

After a several-year hiatus, the Squirrel Nut Zippers only began touring again as recently as 2007. They didn’t have a huge showing at Showcase Live! on Tuesday night, but their quirky musical styling entertained those devotees that showed, and their fans seemed glad to have them back.

Singer Katharine Whalen and bandleader/guitarist Jim "Jimbo" Mathus traded off verses for their opening intro "(You are my) Radio" (Mathus and Whalen were formerly a married-couple in the 90s during some of the band’s larger success, but have since divorced). The song was reminiscent of something that would be crooned on an old-time radio show. Whalen’s voice had a Macy Gray-esque rasp, and Joe Widenhouse’s trumpet-playing carried the tune. Their vintage clothing and throwback music was facilitated with feigned old-fashioned gratitude from Mathus with a "Thank y’all so much. Thank you again" after this first number.

Whalen strapped on a hollow-bodied guitar for the next upbeat tune, "Good Enough for Grandad" off of their ’95 album The Inevitable. The flavor, much like many of their songs, was gypsy jazz infused with bubbly horns. Mathus’ guitar solos were smoothly executed in the quick-temp fashion of the 30s, but it’s that swing part of their sound that coaxed a good portion of the audience to the dance-floor. With a trumpet, alto sax, baritone sax and even a slide trombone for one song, the Zippers have a bit of a Big Band edge as well.

Throughout the performance, a larger crowd gathered in front of the stage to get a closer look. By the time the band got to "Put a Lid On It", a great swing number included on their ’97 platinum album Hot, there were about 30 people on the floor. The nasally sound of Widenhouse’s much-used trumpet mute lent some likable whine to this song and everyone in the band (except for the drummer) got to respond to Whalen with the lazy-sound of the lyrics "put a liiiid on it" in the chorus: "Put a lid on it, (What’s that you say?) Put a lid on it, (Oh man no way), Put a lid down on it and everything will be alright." Several couples relished the opportunity to swing dance to these upbeat numbers.

There were a few slower ballads sung by Whalen, and although she is a very talented and diverse singer, breathy at times and having the ability to float her voice from one note to the next, her stage presence was lackluster. Maybe she was lacking energy because it was the last night of the tour, or maybe nonchalance is just her shtick.

With his cheerful zany dialogue between songs, Mathus was a welcome contradiction.& "Tell them you want to see the Squirrel Nut Zippers back in Foxborough or there’ll be hell to pay" he teasingly ordered the crowd, but had good things to say about the venue, "I love your facility…beautiful atmosphere, fine friends, who could ask for more?"

After playing their most well-known song "Hell" which has a good beat, great parts for the keyboard, some maracas and gives Widenhouse the chance to really blow, the band performed to their animated short. It’s set to the ominous sound of "Ghost of Stephen Foster" with its quickening horns in the style of an old black and white cartoon synched with music. The comical short shows the story of a couple of naïve cartoon characters who choose the wrong place to try and spend a night (even though it has a charming sign that reads Hotel Paradise hanging outside) and end up getting chased around by a cast of creepy skeletons and ghouls. This super-cute film also created a very cool look for the stage at Showcase, since the projector casts some of the image onto the band. This video is a great nod to Max Fleischer’s Minnie the Moocher cartoon which shows Betty Boop in similar unfriendly territory to the sound of Cab Calloway’s music.

After lots of applause for the cartoon and music the band left the stage but returned for an encore. They played three more songs, the best of which was "Do What?", a soul song that Mathus sang/shouted James Brown style which got the crowd dancing one more time.

"They say that all good things must come to an end and this show has come to an end," Mathus told the audience, but then promised to come out and visit with them a little later. Before leaving the stage, everyone in the band was introduced and Whalen was called the "Star of the Show." However, Mathus’energy, guitar solos and singing were much more significant to the performance on this particular evening, not to mention he also picked up the baritone sax and slide trombone. He definitely deserved top billing in this sideshow affair.

Leave a Reply