Here’s a nice fantasy: the pop musical style known as “western swing” re-emerges as a major phenomenon and somehow brings together opposing camps in American culture: red states and blue, rust belt and borscht.
OK, it’s a long shot. I suppose there are some people who don’t care for this hybrid of western music and jazz, with its easygoing rhythms and insistent fiddle lines, but I love the way it blends the homespun with the sophisticated. It’s like standing in line at the chuck wagon and discovering that it’s Wolfgang Puck who’s ladling the chili con carne.
Night Time Man, singer Dean Benner’s recent show at Don’t Tell Mama, reminded me just how enjoyable this style of music can be. Benner—a onetime Wall Street exec who has casually pursued his musical passions since retiring from his profession in 2014—assembled a six-piece band featuring some top-flight musicians. He brought on vocalist Christine Shuler to sing with him on some numbers and to perform a couple of solos. And he enlisted Linda Amiel Burns as director. I arrived at the club prepared for pretty much anything; what I experienced was a highly satisfying musical program.
Early on, Benner spoke ironically about his “brutal” schedule as a musical artist: he performs two shows every other year. Nevertheless, he is a winning entertainer with an affable nature, a pleasing if not soaring singing voice, a relaxed stage presence, and an obvious knowledge of and love for this brand of music. As for the members of the “Dean Benner Band”—working professionals all—they played with exuberance and polish. If they were to get together to perform on their own during Benner’s off years, I’d be there.
Not all the music heard in the program could be called western swing, I suppose. Some numbers had more of a country blues or rock sound, such as Shuler’s raucous solo “In the Basement” (Billy Davis, Raynard Miner, Carl Smith). But most of the program was of a gentler nature, consisting of either music composed by notable country songwriters—Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson—or mainstream standards gently sprinkled with twang. The latter group included “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” (Jimmy Cox), “How Deep Is the Ocean?” (Irving Berlin), and “Makin’ Whoopee” (Gus Kahn, Walter Donaldson).
Especially good were Benner’s takes on “Nobody Knows You…” (for which Shuler and musical director, pianist and arranger Richard Danley sang backup) and the tender George Jones favorite “I Always Get Lucky with You” (Haggard, Freddy Powers, Gary Church, Tex Whitson). In a well-received Walter Mitty-ish turn, the singer kidded his own buttoned-down image by donning cool sunglasses and adopting the persona of an ultra-macho motorcyclist for “Call Me the Breeze” (JJ Cale).
Danley’s rich, stirring arrangements throughout the show deserve special mention; his work at the keyboard was also impeccable. Jack Bashkow played winning saxophone solos on several numbers, and his clarinet playing lent “How Deep Is the Ocean?” a romantic air. Stephen Benson’s guitar solo during “After You’ve Gone” (Turner Layton, Henry Creamer) made a strong impression. and bassist Matt Scharfglass and drummer Mike Campenni provided solid support from start to finish.
But the musician who dominated the evening was fiddler Jonathan Russell. His virtuosic playing added richness, both in his solo moments and during ensemble sequences. I’d first heard Russell at the Friars Club a half-decade or so ago, when, still a high school student, he played in a program with singer Marc Eliot. He was excellent then, and he’s even better now. His playing here helped make the livelier selections zip and the mellower ones glow.
Night Time Man
Don’t Tell Mama – November 12, 19
About the Author
Mark Dundas Wood is an arts/entertainment journalist and dramaturg. He began writing reviews for BistroAwards.com in 2011. More recently he has contributed "Cabaret Setlist" articles about cabaret repertoire. Other reviews and articles have appeared in theaterscene.net and clydefitchreport.com, as well as in American Theatre and Back Stage. As a dramaturg, he has worked with New Professional Theatre and the New York Musical Theatre Festival. He is currently literary manager for Broad Horizons Theatre Company.