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Swing Time

The Royal Crown Revue doesn't just lounge around

"How Yoo Dawin'?"
In conversation, Eddie Nichols flaunts the exaggerated syntactical swagger of Brooklyn, New York, conjuring visions of gangsters, hepcats and, not coincidentally, traveling swing bands. The last is particularly appropriate; Nichols, after all, sings for the Royal Crown Revue, whose key selling point is swing, though the seven-piece band isn't the least bit restrictive in its crossbreeding.

"There's roots in big bands, but it's difficult to describe what we do," says Nichols, who contributes vocals to the Revue. "We take styles from the '40s, '50s, '30s, even early '60s. We might pull some bebop out; we might combine some swing with some rhythm and blues, or a little more of a rock and roll beat, but with more horns on the traditional side. It's a mix-and-match of American music styles from back then."

Nichols is 30 and, yes, he's from New York, though he's lived in Los Angeles for almost 11 years. His Revue wears zoot suits and immaculate coifs, covers Bobby Darin's "Beyond the Sea" and Willie Dixon's "I Love the Life I Live" and appeared as a dance band playing their own "Hey Pachuco" in Jim Carrey's The Mask. According to Nichols, the scene was written around the band after the movie's director saw a Revue performance. So what do we have here? Just another loungy, fly-by-night band(wagon) from L.A.?

Not quite. Nichols and early incarnations of the Revue have been batting around the City of Angels for eight years, even if the present, two-year-old lineup is the one he calls "the real version." In proto-versions, he admits, "the musicianship was much lower."

"It was like a burlesque band or something, ya know? I was playing guitar, I didn't have any horns; it was like this weird swingy skiffle," he says. "But that fell apart, and I finally got introduced to this guy named Mando Dorame. He'd been playing the bars in Watts and East L.A., playing honking saxophone rhythm and blues. So I met him, and we just took off from there."

Nichols, Dorame and guitarist James Achor are the three band members held over from the early days; Bill Ungerman (baritone sax), Scott Steen (trumpet), Veikko Lepisto (bass) and Daniel Glass (drums) round out the jumpy septet. Individually, Revue members had been doing Sinatra-crooning gigs, or bebop gigs, or ska gigs, or Afro-Cuban jazz gigs, and with a median band age hovering in the late twenties, it's all filtered through a healthy layer of punk attitude. Nichols, for one, bought his first Sex Pistols record in 1978 and started delving into swing music only "after the punk thing died out for me personally."

Together, the Revue plays an amalgam of everything mentioned above while dressed in cool clothes, and then throws in some R&B stage-show acrobatics for maximum bang. "When an audience sees us, the first couple of songs they stand there, and they stare. It's something they haven't seen in ages, or it's something they've never seen before," says Nichols. "They go 'uhhh' for a few songs, and then they just get elated. I really try to work an audience. We're trying to do entertainment like they used to do, essentially. It's for the benefit of the audience."

A barely publicized show at the Velvet Elvis earlier this month was the first Houston appearance for the band, which is in the habit of playing 200 plus road dates a year. Audiences vary drastically from town to town, even around the Revue's home state. In Lake Tahoe, for instance, they play to punks and snow boarders, while in San Francisco, they play to clubs full of ultra-dressed-up devotees of what sounds like a burgeoning California swing craze. "There's a real big dance scene out there now," Nichols confides.

Everywhere they go, the Royal Crown Revue is met by clusters of curiosity-seeking scenesters in lounge wear, though Nichols doesn't see his group as having too much in common with the neo-lounge folks. "Between you and me," he says, "a lot of that lounge thing seems like people that aren't really into the music. They're into drinking martinis and looking good, and that's about it."

Nichols sees himself as more of a populist. "When it's a scene out there in Los Angeles, some people feel alienated," he says. "They go to our shows and say, 'Oh, I wanted to dance to your band, but I can't dance like those people.' Or if the majority of people are dressed to the nines, they go, 'Oh, I didn't feel like I fit in.' We appreciate the fact that people are dressing and dancing and doing the whole thing, but I don't like excluding anybody."

For all their retro-accouterments, the Royal Crown Revue is really about the music. And if a newly emergent, sharp-dressed swing band is going to be regarded as a novelty in certain circles circa 1996, well, so be it. At least the Revue has players with enough instrumental chops and live-wire energy to keep itself far removed from the realm of joke bands.

"In picking material and writing material, we walk a fine line between not getting too nostalgic and not getting too campy; it's tough sometimes," admits Nichols. "Sometimes, we go over the line, but we're very careful."

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