For the San Francisco band Slim Jenkins, just playing good music isn't enough
FARMINGTON — It was five years ago when Justin Oliver got his new band, Slim Jenkins, together for its first rehearsal.
Oliver, a musical neophyte who had never done anything but sing along with the car stereo, fancied himself the frontman for a hot, young swing, blues and jazz band that would take San Francisco by storm. Despite his inexperience, he managed to sell that notion to several experienced Bay Area musicians, and the group he had recruited convened for the first time in its rehearsal space.
As the band kicked into that first number, panic swept over Oliver, and he did his best to creep into a corner while performing his lead vocal.
Only a few seconds into that fiasco, Slim Jenkins lead guitarist Joel Martinez, a veteran blues player with attitude to spare, had seen enough. He called the number to a stop, turned to Oliver in the corner and barked at him to get his butt back in the middle of the stage.
"OK, you got your band," Martinez said. "Now fulfill your role as frontman."
Oliver — who will join his bandmates for a show Tuesday, Aug. 4 at Crash Music in Aztec — laughs when he tells that story today, but he said learning to be a real performer, and not just a singer, was a difficult task.
"One thing I wanted was for this band to have mojo," he said by phone last week from his home in San Francisco. "I didn't want us sitting down (onstage) reading charts."
It took a little time, but Slim Jenkins got there. The band now exudes style, its members dressed to the nines and belting out the kind of music that's almost impossible to resist for anybody running a pulse.
"It's a give-and-take with the audience," Oliver said, describing the kind of energy he and the other members of Slim Jenkins try to bring to their show every night. "The more they dance, the crazier we get onstage. For me personally, I get the most pumped up after the guitarist plays his first solo. That's where my energy comes from."
Oliver grew up listening to Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly and Jerry Lee Lewis before his tastes switched to contemporary acts like Nirvana and Alice in Chains as he got older, so he had plenty of powerful personalities to study when he decided to dive into the music business himself. But he said he casts an even wider net when it comes to picking up new moves.
"I can learn from everyone, even if I don't like the music," he said. "Elvis was amazing onstage. If I could have half of what he had onstage, I'd be happy. But I can learn from even the most subtle things, like a small facial expression, a (gesture), anything, really."
For the style of music Slim Jenkins plays — the name comes from a legendary Oakland club owner — that kind of showmanship is imperative, as Oliver knows. When you play dance music, simply staring down at your shoes won't cut it, no matter how good your voice is. The band members have to be not only technically sharp, but respond to each other and the crowd.
Slim Jenkins now consists of five members — Oliver, Martinez, saxophonist Byron Burchard, bassist Timothy Vickers and drummer Felix McNee — but it once swelled to seven members with a full horn section. Oliver said it wasn't until the group cut back to its core five three years ago that things really jelled.
"We're a band of brothers," he said, explaining that each member of the group shares in songwriting and arranging duties, as was the case on its most recent disc, "Lamp Down Low," a self-released album that came out two months ago.
The CD features only six songs, but it's an energetic sampling of the classic American styles that Oliver went back to in earnest after his aforementioned contemporary phase.
"I dated a girl who taught me to swing dance," he said, recalling how he rediscovered that kind of music. "From there, I went down the rabbit hole. I said, 'I gotta find the next person and the next person and the next person.' I just started singing along, and it turned out I had a voice."
There are no heavy themes on "Lamp Down Low," just a lot of good, hip-swiveling, bourbon-swilling fun, including the opener, "Jet Settin' Girl"; the appropriately dubbed "Mad Dog," a showcase for the drummer McNee, whose nickname yielded the song's title; and the collection's best cut, the rumbling "Six Feet Deep or Mexico."
The band's sound, look and style quickly conjure up images of the classic 1996 comedy "Swingers" starring Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau. But Oliver said the film did not serve as any kind of influence for him, explaining he saw it for the first time only three weeks ago.
"I remember the swing scene of the late '90s, but I was too hung up listening to contemporary music," he said. "I came into this when it was not very popular. I hope that proves how much I love the music."
While Oliver would like to see a surge in interest in swing, jazz and blues, he and the other members of Slim Jenkins aren't waiting around for that to happen. They will be relocating over the next few months to Los Angeles, where the music business is based and the opportunities are better.
In the meantime, their Aztec show will come in the middle of a tour that was slated to start in Nashville before heading back west. Oliver said the group has spent most of its time playing Southern California and Las Vegas, but he thinks the time is now to take the Slim Jenkins sound elsewhere. He said he's intrigued by the idea of playing New Mexico for the first time.
"In a lot of big cities, we find the crowd can be a little too cool for school," he said. "In smaller towns, people approach it the right way — with a big heart."
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