Balancing acts

With the returning cold air whipping through downtown Orlando this past Saturday, the main options for reheating our souls were the appearances of Kow at Sapphire Supper Club and Swingerhead at Rat Pack's on the Avenue. Two acts who had all but defined their respective venues in '98 were back to rekindle the flames before the old year vanished into memory -- perfect entertainment for a season that imposes reflection whether we desire it or not.

Rat Pack's had just begun to fill up with shivering bobby-soxers as Jim Andy stepped up to perform his show-opening tribute to Frank Sinatra. His silver hair slicked back, his black tuxedo just fitting his bull-like torso, he grabbed the mike to announce a set of some of his favorite Frank classics, which he of course hoped were some of ours, too.

I had seen Andy once before, and truth be told, he's neither a vocal nor a visual dead ringer for the chairman of the board. He's more reminiscent of your Uncle Manny, who sings surprisingly decent renditions of "All of Me" at weddings and other family gatherings. But he's doing a good job of propagating a school of music he obviously loves, and getting paid for it to boot. Let he who is without swing cast the first stone.

Over at Sapphire, balance was not a key word, as the members of warm-up band SFM turned out a perfunctory set of clunky funk. Maybe they were still listless after ingesting too many holiday meals, but their lazy patter and sloppy musical moves seemed more closely tied to their status as an under-rehearsed Kow offshoot unit. A terrible sound mix left both guitars totally inaudible, although it didn't matter by the time the very first number broke down into a stumbling drum-solo coda. The titles of subsequent selections were read to the crowd from a printed set list. The offhand air amused SFM well enough, but no one else was having nearly as good a time. Old-schooler Andy would have been horrified.

Weight in gold

As the glorified party band paced itself into oblivion, glorious party band Swingerhead strode onto a Rat Pack's stage, where music stands were bedecked with tinsel and glitter, lending the appearance of a 1940s radio studio on Christmas Eve. Scenes from "It's a Wonderful Life" flashed on the overhead video screens while frontman Michael Andrew sung out the virtues of his own blissful existence of dames, martinis and cigars.

A new guitarist took his place on the front line to fill in for the departed Quiche Lorraine, but Andrew told me during a break that this was merely one of four auditioning musos currently in contention for the job. Perhaps they'll have made a final decision by New Year's Eve, when Swingerhead rings in 1999 not at Rat Pack's (oddly), but on its old stomping grounds at Disney's Atlantic Dance. That top-shelf soiree is asking a cool $212 per person, making it a tough gig for a working band to turn down.

As we talked, a petite brunette walked up and greeted Andrew like an old friend, wishing him a "Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanzaa, and whatever I'm forgetting."

"Boxing Day," we amended. "Ramadan."

"That's the one I always miss!" she enthused. It was a good thing she was on the Muslim tip, or she might have gone back to the bar to wish everyone a "Happy Ramada Inn." Instead, she just ambled off, cheerily.

"I have no idea who that is," Andrew grinned.

Off the scale

Everyone, however, knows Kow -- or at least so I had thought before the band hit the Sapphire boards on Saturday. The surging crowd looked more than ready to reacquaint itself with O-town's prime ministers of the funk, but the young guy standing in front of me shattered the illusion by turning to his mates and remarking, "If this band sucks, I say we bail."

Where was he last August, when Kow packed the Sapphire's rafters for a CD-release bash that's still remembered as one of the club's crowning moments of booty-bumping pandemonium? Now, five months later (and without a new disc in the racks), almost as many bovine-ophiles were squeezed into the narrow area in front of the bar, like Burdine's shoppers clogging the aisles of a postholiday sale.

"How many people returned some shit today?" asked singer/keyboardist/saxophonist Anthony Cole, picking up the cue. No hands went up, but Cole wasn't fooled.

"Y'all are trying to be cool," he spat, derisively.

Then his Kow was off on a medley of groove-heavy explorations that started somewhat slowly (too many instrumentals too early on), but gradually gained momentum on its way to a shuddering paroxysm of sound and movement. As he had in August, bassist Matt Lapham launched into the four-string break from Iron Maiden's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner"'; this time, however, I wasn't the only one who recognized it, sparing me from feeling twice in one year like a member of a cabal that's elite because no one else wants to join.

The rising temperature inspired several audience members to clamber onstage, augmenting the Kow ranks with impromptu dancers (female, ecstatic and welcomed), and general hangers-on (male, drunk and beaten back with a snap of Lapham's arm).

I was content to hold my own at the side of the room with The Hindu Cowboys' Joseph Martens, who told me that his band had indeed been allowed to play at Winter Park's West End Grill the previous Saturday, after its appearance at the Bohemia block party had been scuttled. What's more, he burbled, an onlooker had been sufficiently impressed to offer the Cowboys a high-paying date on New Year's Eve. One thing's for certain: It's not at Atlantic Dance.

After Kow thudded its final bass notes, we were left to file back out onto the frigid streets. Two hot shows had brought some cheer to the scene, but the mood was still vaguely desperate as we all hurried through the cold on our way to a better place. There's nothing like the bracing wind to put your priorities back in order. Swingerhead may swing, and Kow may rock. But a good parka is forever.


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