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.
"Anybody who comes out and has a sincere appreciation for what we're doing is welcome," Ohlen confirms. "I don't care what they look like or how they dance. If they get out there and pogo, that's fine." He adds that many listeners who prefer Nineties fashions are as knowledgeable about Western music as their snazzier counterparts. "There are people who don't slick their hair back, but they're at all of our shows, and they come into Wax Trax and buy the records. And they know a lot more about the music than some of the people who walk the walk and talk the talk."
Expanding folks' appreciation of an overlooked genre is one of the objectives of a Dalharts show. "I like to think there are equal parts education and entertainment," Ohlen says. "For a lot of contemporary American rockabillies, their frame of reference only goes as far back as the Stray Cats--and for what they were and what they did, God bless 'em. But thirty years before the Stray Cats, there were hundreds of these guys cutting records. I mean, if you don't know who Gene Vincent is, go back to first grade and find your musical history.
"I don't expect people to leave our shows with their lives changed," he goes on, "but if they come out and have a good time, and they go out and buy a Hank Williams CD or a Bob Wills CD, then I guess we've done our jobs--by perpetuating this madness."
But what is it that makes these stylings so vital to performers born decades after they first came to prominence? "I'm not sure," Ohlen concedes, "but this music was what I grew up with. Then I hit a stage where I thought, 'This is my parents' music,' and I wanted to get away from it. So I don't know if it's a process of getting older or if your tastes just mature."
Cooper, whose singing heroes include Faron Young, early Ray Price and George Jones "when he had a flat-top," offers another possible explanation: "You come full-circle in life. You come back to something familiar--once you realize it's not stupid."
"Rodney and I grew up in Waco, Texas," he continues, "and when you crank across the radio dial there, you don't hear much but country all the way across. And we hated it. We were into punk and new wave in our teens and early twenties." But several years later, while listening to a Dallas alternative station, Cooper experienced a musical epiphany. "They threw on Dwight Yoakam's 'Honky Tonk Man'--I knew that song [done first by Johnny Horton] from when I was a kid--and it sounded so good. After that, I started listening to a little cow punk and rootsy alternative stuff, and next thing you know, there I was right back in it." Today he notes, "If we're doing our music right, people want to get out and jitterbug and do the swing dances--and there ain't much music around that evokes that feeling."
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This shortage will soon be alleviated somewhat by the Dalharts' first full-length CD, to be issued by England's Crazy Gator imprint. (The band has already produced two vinyl offerings.) In May, around the time of the disc's proposed release, the bandmates are slated to perform their brand of Western swing in England at the legendary Hemsby Festival, as well as dates in Holland and Germany. There are also plans under way for a tour of Japan--and in July they'll appear at the second annual Denver Rock N' Rhythm-Billy Festival Weekend, a three-day event produced by Ohlen and his wife, Karen, that will feature an astounding roster of the Dalharts' national and international heroes and peers.
In the meantime, the band is looking forward to a handful of local engagements (the next is February 15 at the blue room) and a few weekend jaunts in the region. It's a busy schedule, but the Dalharts don't see it as prefiguring major-label courtships or a rendezvous with the big time. Still, Cooper believes that success on a smaller scale might not be such a bad thing.
"Sure, I would love to make a living doing this," he admits. "But if I don't get any more successful than I am right now, that's okay."
Ohlen has a similarly grounded outlook. "I don't want to sound like we're pontificating or anything, but if we leave some songs and some records behind us that, twenty or thirty years down the line, someone picks up and thinks, 'Wow, these guys were really locked in,' then great. I can think of no better legacy than that.