Omaha Swing-Rock Band Releases New Disc

by Jim Minge

When the fickle music industry pronounced swing dead — again — in 1999, just a year after the neo-genre had taken off via that wacky khaki Gap commercial, local swing act the Prairie Cats hardly noticed. After all, there are eight more lives to live, right? When Omaha’s full-time swing joint the Stork Club closed that year, the Prairie Cats kept gigging. The eight-piece, brass-backed ensemble found other venues to play in Omaha, from the Ranch Bowl to the Music Box to Trovato’s. Rock club, blues and pop club, Italian restaurant and bar — it doesn’t matter. The crowds are still coming.

“If you base it [the idea that modern swing is dead] on radio airplay, sure, there’s no swing being played on commercial radio,” Prairie Cats leader Jeff Koterba said. “But when we played the Derby last summer in Los Angeles it was packed. And L.A. just added a new swing club called Suzie Q’s.

“It’s mostly hot on both coasts, but even in Omaha … I just talked to one of the dance instructors locally and she [Carol Ring of N2 Swing] said that they had to find a bigger venue to hold their events because they’re so crowded. So, commercially, yeah, it’s totally dead. But it’s a niche market that has a niche audience; it always has been.”

And therein lies the reason for the Prairie Cats’ continued success: the band members haven’t let themselves be pigeonholed into a single style of music. While that’s a positive on several levels, it can be confusing for a record-store clerk wondering under what genre to file the band’s albums.

A Good Mix

“When Hepcat Records [of California] distributes our albums there isn’t a swing category that you can put us in the record store, so we have to be in pop/rock,” Koterba said. “I guess we could be in jazz, but we’re not really jazz. We’re kind of pop but all these other things, too. We’re not really blues, so it’s hard from a marketing standpoint. I think the same thing holds true for radio.”

While you might not hear the Prairie Cats on Kasey’s Top 40 countdown, area and regional radio stations play songs by the Cats. In the Omaha area, curious ears can catch the Cats on the River (KIWR 89.7 FM), as well as on weekly shows such as “City Underground” on the City (KCTY 106.9 FM) and KVNO’s (90.7 FM) Saturday-night jazz program.

Or if you want the live version, you can take in the Prairie Cats at Trovato’s on April 20 and 21. Granted, it will be a little tighter inside the cozy confines of Trovato’s compared to the Sokol Auditorium, where the Prairie Cats performed to over 900 people on April 1. That night the P-Cats celebrated the release of a new album, ’Til the Daytime Fades, a stupendous follow-up to the band’s debut collection, The Big One.

The eight Cats — Koterba (vocals, guitar); Jeff Schoening (drums); Kevin Linder (trumpet); Jason Grotelueschen (trombone, vocals); Erik Johnson (alto saxophone), Larry Frederickson (stand-up bass, piano), Dan Schoening (trumpet, flugelhorn); Craig Crilly (tenor saxophone) — are tighter than ever. The new songs are much more diverse in character and each has a story to tell. Musically, the tunes on ’Til the Daytime Fades include elements ranging from jazz to jump-blues to hip-hop and polka.

The brass is brighter, the percussion looser — but deftly on time — and Koterba’s vocals have matured. His chops now carry a more confident tone, and his inflections at times hint at a Sinatra croon.

“I think our writing is far more mature and sophisticated than it was,” Koterba said. “A lot of our songs on the first album were more blues-based, and there’s still some blues-based boogie woogie-type stuff on this album, but a lot more of it is jazz-based or Latin-based or pop-based, with a sprinkling of hip-hop even in a couple of places, just a little bit in Jeff’s drums. And we have a couple of new players who joined us a year ago who are just tremendous players. I think experience makes a big difference.”

Playing over 300 shows since the release of The Big One likely helped spur the creative process, too.

“The first time I had just joined the band, and had never been in a recording studio, so I was a little uncomfortable,” added trumpeter Schoening. “But this time I felt much more comfortable with the arrangements and I had done it before. And being together longer helped make everything a little smoother.”

Stepping Up and Stepping Out

There were other differences in the recording process as well.

“The first time around we recorded the horns and the rhythm section all together live, as it were,” Koterba said. “And this time we separated it and isolated it a little more. We did the rhythm section separately and then the horn ensemble pieces separately, so that was a little different.”

Locally adored engineer Jim Homan mastered and produced ’Til the Daytime Fades with the Prairie Cats at Ware House Productions.

“He [Homan] worked on our first album, and he said that he really wanted to take this one to the next level,” Koterba said. “We had a lot of preliminary meetings, so we had a better sense of what we had to do before we went in; I think that made a big difference, just having a better sense of what to expect.”

Homan wasn’t the only one lending the Cats a hand. The new album includes several guest appearances by local artists. The members of the Omaha Big Band joined for “Not In the Mood,” Jeff Schoening’s spoof of the oft-requested classic “In the Mood.” Vibe man Luigi Waites played marimba on “Rocketship”; Mitch Towne of the 9’s contributed some Hammond B-3 work on “Slow”; while Rebecca Rotert of Echo Farm fame donated her luscious vocals to three more songs.

So far no deal has been signed, but the Prairie Cats have received phone calls from curious record labels since performing last year at the influential South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas.

“We’re in contact with four labels that are subdivisions of other labels, like Sony and Atlantic, and they liked our local numbers [album sales], but we can’t get out and pound the pavement [tour] like you need to because we have day jobs,” Koterba said.

The band has been able to make short tours over the summer months. Last year it was to Los Angeles — via Denver and Las Vegas — to perform at the notorious Derby club (remember Swingers?). This summer, the Prairie Cats will travel to New York to play NYC’s World Trade Center. The band has two gigs there — one inside, and one outside at a club on top of the center.

If you really want an up-close-and-personal look at the Cats, check out one of the band’s Trovato’s sets. The multi-instrumental group has played the modestly sized stage before, and those shows are still being talked about. However, if you want to see a swing band and do some toe hoppin’, you’ll have to wait for the next Prairie Cats gig at the Music Box or the Sokol Auditorium. Trovato’s is reserved for the Cats to turn into a barroom rock band.

“The one thing that I try to stress to people is that the dancing is the icing,” Koterba said. “Yeah, it’s a band you can dance to, but you don’t have to. That’s why we don’t play dances; we play shows, clubs, bars — just like any other rock band would.”

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