The Pre-War Ponies Bring Their Lush, Romantic, Warmly Nocturnal Swing Sounds Back to Barbes

by delarue

Every time you turn around, another oldtimey swing band pops up somewhere around town. And venues have gotten wise: even grungy old Arlene’s has swing bands now! Ten years ago, who would have thought? One of the most original and distinctive groups in that feverishly followed demimonde is the Pre-War Ponies. Where most 20s hot jazz outfits play lickety-split, uptempo material, the Pre-War Ponies specialize in warmly swinging, mostly midtempo songs anchored by the plush, balmy, disarmingly clear vocals of frontwoman/baritone uke player Daria Grace (a founding member of another iconic New York swing band, the Moonlighters). And while many of the other swing crews in town play the same old standards, the Pre-War Ponies have been known to scour junk shops in search of rare gems from eighty and ninety years ago. They’ve got a fantastic new album, Get Out Under the Moon due out soon and a show on Sept 10 at 10 PM at Barbes. Auspiciously, Pierre de Gaillande (former frontman of brilliant New York art-rockers Melomane, with whom Grace played bass) debuts his new band, Open Kimono to open the night at 8.

The Pre-War Ponies’ Barbes show last month was as pillowy, and romantic, and fun as you could possibly want, enhanced by the erudite wit and groove of polymath latin jazz drummer Willie Martinez. Grace ran her uke through an effects pedal, adding subtle tinges of reverb as well as some psychedelically oscillating timbres on a couple of numbers. J. Walter Hawkes doubled on uke and trombone, alternating between boisterous – and sometimes droll – and comfortable, nocturnal ambience on both instruments. Martinez’s ambling brushwork and artful cymbal work propelled the forthcoming album’s 1928 title track;, then he gave a lowlit slink to Grace’s subtly moody take of Irving Berlin’s Say It Isn’t So as Hawkes added shadowy resonance.

They played what’s more or less their signature song, Moon Over Brooklyn – a onetime Guy Lombardo recording – early in the set. Other than the Flatbush Avenue reference, it could be set pretty much anywhere, but as Grace sang it, it had a coyly strolling charm that was impossible to resist. From there they picked up the pace with a jaunty take of Fats Waller’s How Can You Face Me with Hawkes’ trombone front and center. Then they went back toward bittersweet territory as Grace’s expansive chords anchored a brooding shuffle take of The Lamp Is Low, a showcase for Martinez at his most articulate and expressive.

You wouldn’t think a band could raise the energy level with a suicide song, but that’s what they did, with a bouncy take of Jimmie Noone’s 1920s hit Ready for the River. Amapola, a tongue-in-cheek cha-cha shout-out to a pretty little poppy (you do the math) was another springboard for Martinez’s spring-loaded subtlety behind the kit, Hawkes adding foghorn trombone ambience. Al Dubin and Harrry Warren’s risque swing tune Pettin’ in the Park bore a mysterious resemblance to Walking in a Winter Wonderland, with a pulsing Ian Riggs bass solo midway through. Hawkes’ eyeball-rolling muted trombone solo took centerstage in the Boswell Sisters’ Got the South in My Soul to wind up the band’s first set. The crowd responded warmly: it was date night, lots of couples, from their 20s to older Slopers out for a romantic evening in Barbes’ cozy back room. That’s probably the biggest reason behind the unwavering popularity of the stuff the Pre-War Ponies play.