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Straight From the 'Harts

How the Dalhart Imperials have become roots-music royalty.

Most times when Les Cooper is on stage, he's singing with the band he fronts, Denver's Dalhart Imperials. But on this evening, he and his wife, Joan, are teaching dance steps to an attentive crowd whose members seem to have stepped straight from The Wild One. Men with greased hair and leather jackets and women in pleated skirts and bobby socks watch as Joan steps in front of Les, leaning forward until she looks as if she's inspecting his shoes. Next, she extends her hands between her legs just beyond her upturned hips--and upon taking hold of them, Les, who looks boyishly handsome in a plaid shirt and pegged pants, gives a hearty tug. In a flash, Joan is airborne. She performs an eye-popping 360 without losing hold of either her husband's wrists or her Forties-schoolgirl charm.

Back on earth, Joan acknowledges gleeful shouts of approval from the audience, then offers her students a crucial piece of advice: "When you do this step, be aware of your space. We don't want any of you to get hurt." A moment later, the throng answers Big Joe Turner's call to "Shake, Rattle and Roll"--and when another young woman flies through the air, she's rewarded with a squeal of delight from her fellow rug-cutters.

Retro settings like this one are nothing new for Cooper and his fellow Dalharts, stand-up bassist Kurt Ohlen, drummer Rodney Bowen, steel guitarist Tim Whitlock and guitarist Pascal Gumbard, a new recruit who recently moved to the area from Paris, France. For the past two and a half years, these purveyors of Western bop and swing have served as torch-bearers for Denver's growing rockabilly/swing scene. And while the hep cats here at the blue room (a venue where Ohlen sponsors a weekly celebration of rockabilly, jump and jive called "Tore Up") may look like invitees to a Fifties-era costume party, they're more serious about their fun than you might expect.

"I think a lot of people come in off the street and see guys with pompadours and leather jackets and think, 'Oh, a sock hop!'" Ohlen says. "They think this is kind of quaint and nostalgic, but it's not. This is how we live."

Life for the Dalharts began in 1994, when Ohlen decided to form a band to play the Western swing and West Coast country music he'd heard as a child. "Originally, I was going to sing and play guitar," remembers this reformed punk rocker. "But I couldn't find a stand-up bass player in town. So I said, 'Heck, I'll play it,' and I went out and I bought a stand-up. Smartest move I ever made."

After placing an ad for musicians in Westword and posting fliers around town, Ohlen was joined by drummer Craig Gilbert, guitarist Dave DeVore and Whitlock, a veteran of numerous cow-punk and alternative groups who shifted to a triple-necked steel guitar to make the act's sound more authentic. Soon thereafter, Cooper, a fixture on the local rockabilly scene, signed on as vocalist. After finalizing the lineup, Ohlen, a self-professed "record dork" (he works at Wax Trax) who recites music trivia as easily as he can recall yesterday's weather, set out to find a handle for his creation. The one he decided upon combines the name Dalhart, a town in north Texas, with "Imperials" to create the appropriately regal moniker under which the band proudly performs.

The Western swing influences the act displayed during its first show, at the Mercury Cafe, came as a surprise to scenesters who knew the Dalhart recruits as rockabilly aficionados; in fact, the players report, some roots-music fans took a while to embrace the outfit's original Bakersfield sound. But despite the departure of Gilbert and DeVore, the Dalharts have stuck to their guns--and Ohlen couldn't be happier about it. "That late-Forties, early-Fifties Western bop--that's the stuff, man," Ohlen enthuses. "That Capitol stuff sounds so good. Jimmy Bryant, Speedy West, Hank Thompson...I love that stuff."

For Ohlen, the music's appeal exists on many levels. First of all, he says, "you've got these Western guys playing jazz and rhythm and blues within a framework they're familiar with--i.e., stringed instruments. It's jazz and R&B put into a Western setting." Equally important to Ohlen is the history behind the style. "To all the 'Okies' and 'Arkies' and everyone who was transplanted by World War II to work in the factories of California, this was their connection to home. And also, to me, it represents a very important period race-relations-wise, because this music was desegregated long before anything else was.

"At the same time, I don't deny that people want to jump around," he acknowledges. "What it all boils down to is that this is some of the best dance music ever made."

Approximately 24 hours after making this statement, the Dalharts prove Ohlen's point. As the band, clad in sharp Western shirts, cuffed jeans and a cowboy hat or two, takes the stage at the Bluebird Theater, the dance floor quickly fills, and it stays that way for most of the evening. It's easy to understand why. The set is marked by Cooper's rich, slightly husky crooning, Whitlock's nimble steel licks, Gumbard's clean, cascading guitar runs and a boppin' beat courtesy of Ohlen and Bowen, whose devilish leer can be seen beneath the brim of his ten-gallon chapeau. The music is tasteful and restrained, but with a subtle dose of danger that invigorates the spinning, frenzied couples oscillating at the Dalharts' feet. Skirts fly and ducktails dip as those in vintage finery mix it up with counterparts in more modern dress. Clearly, the faithful bunch shaking their tailfeathers at the Bluebird is nondenominational; shopping at American Aces is not a requirement for acceptance.

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