There’s a certain risk that comes with emulating the past. Not repeating it, mind you, but reshaping it in a way that puts it squarely in the present. Likewise, there’s an even greater risk that comes with attempting to remake it while trying to fit it your own motif so that you can call it your own.
That’s the challenge the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies have faced throughout their career, and indeed it’s sometimes put them on a difficult path. They made it their mission to veer from genre to genre across the musical map, choosing to follow their own muse regardless of feedback from fans and critics alike. Truth be told, individuality and defiance have always been part of the band’s DNA, and have, in turn, reinforced their rebellious reputation. Granted, that image is well deserved; the ability to bend the boundaries has been an integral part of their MO ever since they first formed some 25 years ago.
According to the band’s longtime leader, singer/songwriter Steve Perry, the band’s mantra has remained the same – “the obstacle is the path”, that is, to pursue unexpected and difficult avenues that challenge both them as artists and individuals while at the same time encouraging audiences to follow. “We’re still anxious to bring people into the fold,” Perry insists. “Our iconoclasm has never been about to alienating anyone, but rather to make music that’s edgy, effusive and yet completely compelling on a larger level.”
To that point, the new band’s new opus -- descriptively titled Please Return the Evening: The Cherry Poppin’ Daddies Salute the Music of the Rat Pack – was designed as a challenge their studio craft, attempting to do justice to huge orchestrated arrangements while being limited to their 8 piece band inside a small Eugene, Oregon recording studio. “We recorded mostly live in the room together and as far apart as we possibly could in order to get the feel of those live recording sessions that featured large in house studio orchestras”, Perry explains. “We were hoping that some of our punky grit and jazzers conviction would shine through the final recordings so as not to seem too smooth or canned, but rather to achieve the same balance between authentic edge and technical competence that makes the Rat Pack’s music so compelling”
The recording taps into a tradition established by three of the hippest singers of all time, unique personalities that helped patent the concept of cool. Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. ruled the roost in Las Vegas as well as the trendiest nightclubs and watering holes from New York City and Chicago to the West Coast and all the way south to Miami Beach. When they worked in tandem as the legendary Rat Pack, Sinatra, Martin and Davis found the perfect combination – one that fused sheer swagger with an easy, amiable style. That approach helped define the cultural undercurrents of that critical period from the late ‘50s to the early ‘60s, while captivating and entertaining audiences in the process.
Please Return the Evening offers up a superb set of standards that have come to epitomize the Rat Pack’s repertoire – songs that look upward with the singular optimism that energized America at the dawn of the ‘60s, a time that would prove to be the twilight of the swing era. The song titles sum that spirit up succinctly – “The Best Is Yet To Come,” Come Fly With Me,” “Fly Me To The Moon,” “Mister Success,” “That’s Life” and “Luck Be A Lady” among them –the epitome of a verve and vibe that once shone oh so brightly, a sharp contrast to a pessimism that seems to have set in dimly at first after the Kennedy assassination then continuing to darken through Vietnam, Watergate, the Challenger disaster and 9-11 right through to the cynicism of the present.
“We’re really fascinated by that mid century American can-do attitude,” Perry insists. “These songs hearken back to a time when the sky was literally the limit.”
It’s in that singular spirit, a combination of attitude, affability, and desire to go all in– that’s made the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies (Perry, bassist Dan Schmidt, trumpet player Dana Heitman , tenor saxophonist Willie Matheis, guitarist Chris Ward, trombonist Joe Freuen, alto sax player Andy Page and drummer Paul Owen) so interesting. “Our band started in the gloom of the mid to late 80’s, a time steeped in transgressive art: Nick Zedd, Annie Sprinkle, Cindy Sherman, G.G. Allin; it was the high water mark of the AIDS crisis. It was also a time of pitched political battles over the meaning of and sensitivity to words… this was the time when “politically correct” and “other-abled” came into existence. I felt that there was some strange fun house mirror connection between the sly, coded language used by the 1930’s jazz artists in the Viper Jive 78’s I was influenced by, and the impulse to defang and codify language for socio political ends that was happening in the late 80’s. I guess I kind of felt how I imagine Frank Zappa must have felt during the zenith of the hippy years when he made “We’re Only In It for the Money and “Freak Out”. I wanted to poke at and lampoon a subculture that I had much sympathy for, but whose solutions to problems I felt were often misguided. The Cherry Poppin’ Daddies with our early theatrical stage show and confrontational nature were a coming together of all these streams of influence.”
Like Zappa, the band’s always prided itself on its craft and musicianship, superior skills that have allowed them to excel in whatever format they choose to tackle. “In many ways, the new album encapsulates everything we’ve woven into our music before,” Perry maintains. “Like I am want to say, “The obstacle is the path” we have always thrown difficulties in our way and had to fight to overcome them. Tackling this era in a legitimate way was going to be hard, but in the end it helped us to build muscles and understand our craft. It also shines a different light on our body of work and who we are as a band. Times change, we’ve changed, we’ve become dads maybe having a more nuanced understanding of the world where we once were just kids defiantly facing down any and all hypocrisies. To me at this point it’s about the body of work, the whole journey. We live and breathe music, and as a result, we’ve put our heart and soul into each of these offerings. Hopefully we can bring people together – both longtime fans and folks who may not be familiar with what we have put ourselves through. Frankly, we can’t do this any other way.”