LOS ANGELES -- The massive, ruby-red tomato of the stage's backdrop is coated in a dazzling crimson glow, yet it's lost amid the sites and sounds of Squirrel Nut Zippers.
The song is the moody, up-tempo jazz number "Ghost of Stephen Foster" (RealAudio excerpt), lifted from the Squirrel Nut Zippers' new album, Perennial Favorites.
With her legs crossed at the ankles like a proper Southern belle, Katharine Whalen sits strumming her banjo at stage right, while Tom Maxwell socks the gong, Ken Mosher blows his sax, Don Raleigh buzzes his bass, Chris Phillips hammers the skins and Je Windenhouse trumpets toward the sky.
Meanwhile, center stage, Jim Mathus plays guitar and yelps, "Ships were made for sinking, whiskey made for drinking. If we were made of cellophane, we'd all get stinking drunk much faster!"
So went the Squirrel Nut Zippers' show Tuesday night at the Palace in Hollywood, the same day that the North Carolina neo-swing jazz septet's new album was released. Goofiness and feel-goodness prevailed from the back of the house -- where fans were cutting the rug with a vengeance as the band played -- to the stage's backdrop, which pictured larger-than-life vegetables in addition to the succulent-looking tomato at the center.
"If you're wondering about all the ripe vegetables behind us, well, they're perennial favorites," said singer and multi-instrumentalist Mathus. Clearly, the spirit of the release was in full harvest. While Whalen wore a red tube-top and black skirt for the occasion, her male bandmates sported suits or white-shirt/black-pants ensembles. Many fans turned out for the sold-out show in idiosyncratic Zipper style; guys dressed in suits and pointed shirts, while gals donned Southern-style dresses and hillbilly get-ups.
Many of the outfits, however, had a mod twist. "Anything goes, and that's just the attitude of the music," said Paulina Flint, 17, who was wearing a long, yellow sundress and black Converse sneaks and clutching an SNZ poster after the show.
The Zippers devoted most of their 80-minute show to new material, from the frisky album-opener, "Suits Are Picking Up the Bill" (RealAudio excerpt), to the dashing "Fat Cat Keeps Getting Fatter."
The disco ball started rotating for Whalen's tune "Evening at Lafitte's," casting angular shards of silver light around the Palace's walls. As Whalen sang, she recalled jazz legend Billie Holiday and 1930s singer and actress Marlene Dietrich. While she moved her arms in a Charleston fashion, her Latin-style leg movements often looked more tango-like than swing-based.
"I think her voice is the most beautiful thing ever," said 22-year-old Deana Luke, who had her hair in a style similar to Whalen's curled-up 'do. "But the Zippers as a whole -- they're just the best thing since, um ... tomatoes."
Fans packed in so tight for the sold-out party that only the bartenders had room to dance, unless you moved to the back -- like newfound dance partners Allison Carroll, 16, and Heath Natenmakeo, 18. "We both came in groups and tried to make a circle," explained Allison, who was dressed in hillbilly-style cropped pants and a blue-and-white checkered shirt. "But it was too crowded, so we came back here."
As Allison gave the suspender-clad Natenmakeo dance instructions on how she should be led, the pair trotted their way through the marching-band jazzy "Soon."
Onstage, Mathus chanted, "Play that thang, play that thang," while Maxwell delivered the main vocal like Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder thrown into a 1942 dancehall. His old-school style shaded with a tinge of fierceness, Maxwell was most entertaining during the band's breakthrough hit, "Hell" (RealAudio excerpt), from its previous release, 1996's Hot.
During that number, he began by teetering back and forth on tiptoe and ended by falling flat on his face to the last drum beat.
Paulina's sister, longtime Zipper fan Anna, 19, came sporting nose rings and a swing-style dress.
Anna, who had seen the band perform five times prior to Tuesday's show, said watching the band go from hipster-cult status to the mainstream, MTV map is disappointing, even though she said she's happy for them.
"It was so new and invigorating the first time I saw them, and now everybody knows about them," she said. "It's cool though, you know."