Don Botch: Squirrel Nut Zippers bringing zany holiday show to Miller Center in Reading

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Dec. 1—When the Squirrel Nut Zippers return to the stage of the Miller Center for the Arts in downtown Reading on Friday night, one thing's for certain: It's going to be a party.

Granted, it'll be a slightly different party from the last time the nine-piece jazz rock orchestra performed there in February 2019. This time around, the show is part of a 17-city Holiday Caravan Tour, where original compositions from the Zippers' 1998 "Christmas Caravan" album bump up against some of their more-raucous dance numbers, like, say, their 1996 breakthrough single, "Hell."

On the phone from his home in Oxford, Miss., Zippers mastermind, frontman and guitarist Jimbo Mathus asserted that it all makes perfect sense to him.

"Well, you know, Christmas and the holidays are hell for a lot of people," he said, laughing, "so I don't see it not working."

For the uninitiated, Zippers shows are ribald, risque affairs filled with dancing, theatrics and colorful costumes, not to mention a multi-talented cast of characters whom Mathus pegs as some of New Orleans' finest musicians.

While the band's antics may seem chaotic considering all the moving parts, there is some method to the madness.

For that, Mathus credits his sidekick, the band's musical director, fiddler and resident scene stealer, Dr. Sick.

"He's very skilled in all instruments and dance and burlesque theater and all those things," Mathus said, "so he brings a great element and a great amount of creativity, ideas and energy into the orchestra. ... It is a lot of work to really have it tight like we have it while still seeming fun and loose."

In the beginning

Squirrel Nut Zippers (the name is borrowed from an old-time caramel candy) formed in 1993 in Chapel Hill, N.C., and released their debut album, "The Inevitable Squirrel Nut Zippers," in 1995. As luck would have it, they hit at a perfect time, catching a wave that would lift them to heights Mathus never could have imagined. In the blink of an eye, their sophomore release, "Hot," which came out in '96, was going platinum.

Asked about those early days and what stands out in his mind, Mathus recalled:

"We were really kind of blowing up in the Southeast just from word of mouth. The shows just kept getting bigger and bigger because people were so intrigued and excited about what we were doing. I guess the first time we went to L.A., we didn't really have any idea that we were part of a larger swing revival that was going on at the time in the '90s. So we go to L.A. and I'm assuming nobody knows who the hell we are out there, and we pull up to this club, The Brown Derby — it's an old club in Hollywood — and it's just lined around the block, and it's the typical story, I was like, 'Who's playing there tonight?' And it's like, 'You are, dude.'

"We were so green and really had no idea what was happening in the larger world. We were working in isolation, so it was quite an eye-opener. Next thing you know, within a year or two they started playing 'Hell' on the radio — first a station in Boston, then KROQ out in L.A. started playing it. These were Top 40 stations. And next thing you know, we had sold a million of those suckers. So the whole process was very bizarre and completely unparalleled."

For Mathus, who grew up in a musical family, it was a dream come true.

"It was very exciting, because I had been pursuing music eagerly and passionately since I was, say, 10 years old," he said. "I got really serious about then. I was in my mid-20s and made a lot of sacrifices just to be an artist, be a musician. It was just incredible. I was very proud and very pleased to see that happen."

American roots

While often associated with that swing revival, the Zippers are not so easily pigeonholed.

Their sound is varied, reflecting Mathus' many influences, including Delta blues, folk, gospel, hillbilly, jazz, calypso and even the Eastern European/Yiddish music that made its way into early American theater.

"I've always had a passion for seeking out the roots of American music — exploring them, partaking in them, and learning the different forms," Mathus said.

Lyrically, he peers into dark corners, inspired by literary giants such as Poe and Faulkner.

And it all comes together in surprising ways from song to song, and especially onstage, where Mathus' flair for the dramatic (he's also a visual artist) bursts through in the costumes and props, including one particularly outlandish mask he made himself. The whole production is a feast for the eyes.

"The mask is part of the theater, right?" Mathus said. "I mean, going back to tragedy and comedy, so yeah, we use whatever cheap, available props we can carry around with us just to enhance the show and add theater to it."

Tying it all together is a killer band that has evolved through the years. These days, the members mostly hail from New Orleans, where the Zippers record their albums.

"We've made a good impression on that city," Mathus said, "so the musicians there are eager to join the group and add to the legacy of the band. Everybody is multi-talented in many ways. Basically, everybody in the nine-piece orchestra is a band leader in their own right. They're just a very talented bunch."

The band's latest album, "Lost Songs of Doc Souchon," honors a key figure in the preservation of pre-jazz music in New Orleans. Filled with "esoteric, strange-seeming songs," it's a record that Mathus is proud of, even if it didn't get the attention it deserved, having been released in the midst of the pandemic.

"It's like a lost era of jazz in New Orleans that he (Souchon) remembered and advocated very early on to preserve and to perform himself," Mathus said. "So he's a very sort of iconic figure to me as a folklorist and a musician, somebody I resonate with, saving lost forms of music for the few weirdos who actually care — such as myself."

If you go

Event: Squirrel Nut Zippers Holiday Caravan Tour

When: 8 p.m. Friday

Where: Miller Center for the Arts at Reading Area Community College, 4 N. Second St.

Tickets: $44