Swizzlegrit lead singer Elizabeth Hunter claims she always wanted to perform behind chicken wire. And as she’s discovered, bar energy manifests itself in many ways. Last spring, when Swizzlegrit broke into a cover of the Junior Wells song, “Little By Little,” a bartender jumped on the bar top to swing with a lone female. Before the song ended, the female was topless and gyrating in front of the bartender, whose pants were dropped to his knees. Then this past December, again during a Junior Wells cover, a fight broke out and pool balls and other debris filled the barroom air. A lone nine ball was airmailed toward the stage, blew past Hunter’s face, then punctured the wall inches from drummer Fred Jenkins’ head. But the band doesn’t take umbrage with such pandemonium during their shows. As one bandmember put it, “We want fans to let their hair down and go crazy.”
Swizzlegrit is an onomatopoeia, according to Labarre Banqueshot, the band’s harmonica player, who claims, “the word gives you some flavor of the experience.” Swizzlegrit first took the stage in February 1999, the brainchild of Banqueshot and Hunter. Other band members include John Lee Walden on bass and Eric Pfeiffer on guitar. Banqueshot and Walden both played with Bob Wire & the Fencemenders for a few years, while Hunter turned 21 singing at local bars. Altogether, the band boasts over 40 years of music-playing experience, and on the radar screen of Missoula bar bands, Swizzlegrit appears to be a consistent force. As singer Hunter attests, “So many bands come and go, but we’re not going away. People continue seeing our name. If you have staying power, people’ll come and see you. We’ve played to plenty of empty bars, but now people are catching on.”
Currently taking the stage two or three weekends a month, for 40-50 songs per gig, Swizzlegrit reaches deep into the pop genres of the ’50s and ’60s for its covers. But rather than recite the songs verbatim, the band chooses only songs they can improve upon or add a new twist to, like Joe South’s “Hush,” Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots are Made for Walking,” or Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “16 Tons.” Influences on the band’s work include George Jones, Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash, Captain Beefheart, Merle Haggard, Dale Hawkins, Ray Price, Wanda Jackson, and many others. Hunter’s “big opera” vocals and the band’s revved-up country and blues often succeed in getting people swinging.
Interested in checking out bar art that stays true to Missoula’s music tradition? Banqueshot claims that besides the occasional drunk stumbling into the band’s equipment, you can expect to find “high intensity, high integrity roots music that knows no boundaries. The music all burns with a blue flame, and that same energy found in rock ’n’ roll comes out in blues, rockabilly and honky-tonk. And, oh yeah, prepare to get sweated on.”
Swizzlegrit plays the Alcan Bar in Frenchtown this Saturday, Jan. 20 at 9 PM.