There are few places on the planet where, in 2009, should you want to catch a vintage-styled swing band, you’d have to take your pick. Asheville happens to be one those places. There’s the ragtime swing of Woody Pines, the Gypsy Jazz of One Leg Up and the Western swing of Vollie Mackenzie’s Western Wildcats. And now, new on the scene is, The Space Heaters, a swing quartet specializing in upbeat chestnuts (“Baby Won’t You Please Come Home,” “My Sweetheart’s the Man in the Moon”) and quirky originals (“Pork and Beans,” “Honey Bee Sting”).
If The Space Heaters (who recently played to a nearly full house at The CornerHouse Café) don’t have an obscure enough play list for swing connoisseurs, the fact that the group’s lead instrument is a ukulele might do the trick. But kitsch factor aside, Ray Ring makes his diminutive axe sing with all the authority of a lead guitar. He’s the Chet Atkins of the uke.
Seated in the CornerHouse’s rear nook, the small group projected nicely over the hum of diners (the restaurant and bar, located in the S&W Cafeteria building, has high ceilings and good acoustics), creating a cozy atmosphere both with their retro look (Ring in top hat and suspenders, lead singer and guitarist Leo Johnson in a vest, fiddler Jason Baker in a suit and driver’s cap) and their song selections.
The Fred Rose number “Roly Poly” (about a boy who eats continuously) and The Nat King Cole Trio’s jazzy “The Frim Fram Sauce” (in which a customer talks to a waiter) both nodded to the dining atmosphere. But, while The Space Heaters did make a stylish addition to the diner hour, it’s likely they’d be more in their element in front of a crowd of eager dancers.
Only six months since inception (and stand up bassist Ian Harrod joined the band just two weeks before this particular show), The Space Heaters are slickly tight, the novelty aspect of the songs quickly giving way to deft musicianship. Even with the restaurant’s door open, The Space Heaters overpowered the drum circle just across the street. And, while two drummers performed on the group’s self-titled debut disc, The Space Heaters manage plenty of rhythm without a live percussionist. Harrod is largely to thank for this: He fills in the bottom with a combination of syncopated picking and funky slaps. Johnson also makes for a mighty rhythm section with kinetic guitar strumming.
It’s the combination of Ring and Baker, trading fiery solos, that ultimately spells star power for The Space Heaters. Catch this band soon; it’s unlikely they’ll be playing free shows for long.
The Space Heaters play BoBo Gallery on Thursday, April 9. 9 p.m. 254-3426.