Johnny Reno's most recent outfit, the Lounge Kings, is no exception. Replete with overweight, goateed horn players, this ensemble is pretty much your standard collection of 20-something jazz hounds. Beneath the all-too-familiar exterior, however, lies a band that really knows how to lay down a groove. The group managed to hush a crowded Grand Emporium with a wonderful collection of tunes that alternated between raucous jams and moody meditations.
Reno has been around for ages, touring with such diverse acts as Chris
Isaak and Stevie Ray Vaughan, and his tenor sax and vocals were at the undisputed heart of every composition. Between numbers, he characterized his approach to life as "swingin' like Frank and drinkin' like Dino," and this philosophy was epitomized by boozy, gravelly vocals reminiscent of a rhythmically enhanced version of Tom Waits.
The set jumped off with a strangely syncopated rendition of "Route 66," featuring some stellar vibraphone playing by Allen Pollard. Coaxing a rich, sonorous sound from his ensemble, Reno relaxed and let the soloists take extended runs at this old standard, occasionally punctuating the proceedings with belching squawks from his sax.
The next several songs were previews from the band's recently recorded second disc, which should be released this summer. These cuts were more melancholy and exhibited Reno's abilities as a songwriter. Never lyrically deep, the tracks at least featured some fiery musical pyrotechnics. "How Big Can You Get," in particular, shone, with an almost Turkish-sounding horn break soaring over the nonsensical scat vocals.
The Lounge Kings proved themselves a capable ensemble. Pollard alternated between the vibes and bongos as the night progressed, and his work was thoroughly enjoyable on every track. He also provided jaunty background vocals on many of the tracks. The horn players were always on, and they seemed to need little rest between their impressive solos. Likewise, some excellent accompaniment was provided by the organ player, who led the way through a sultry, winsome rendition of "Fly Me to the Moon." The rhythm section was tight and edgy, particularly guitarist Sam Swank.
If Reno and his band had one real fault, it was their tendency to pander to the crowd. A cover of Roger Miller's "King of the Road" turned into a mawkish sing-along, starting and stopping almost as often as the infamous drunken version R.E.M. once recorded. On the whole, though, the ensemble was an exciting example of a tight swing band. Now if we can just think of something to give former drill-teamers a chance to shine.