THE RHYTHM ROCKETS CELEBRATE THEIR 20TH ANNIVERSARY AS A BANDBy Bill Dahl It's a remarkable achievement for any band to exist for 20 years in a very volatile business, no matter what type of music they play. It's an even more unusual accomplishment for an outfit that's always proudly specialized in a genre that was popular close to half a century before they ever set foot onstage as a unit. Yet the swinging, highly danceable jump blues idiom has provided a fully punched ticket to longevity for the Rhythm Rockets. The Chicagoland septet celebrates its platinum anniversary on Saturday, January 14 at the nightclub where it all began for them: Frankie's Blue Room in Naperville (they haven't played there in more than a decade). Riley Wimes will also be on hand to offer lessons in the fine art of swing dancing. "It's quite a milestone, isn't it?" marvels Rhythm Rockets founder and lead guitarist Dave Downer. That fondly recalled debut show at Frankie's on New Year's Eve of 1996 found the Rockets sharing a bill with Bopology and the Blue Room's then-house band, the Big Swing. "I had broken my leg and ankle two weeks prior to our show," says Downer. "I was up there onstage in a cast. The first four months that I was playing, I had to have a chair."Two full decades of gigging on the local scene, (as well as across the country) since then are all the more impressive considering the national neo-swing movement, once a red-hot sensation, fizzled some time ago. "Most of the bands are gone," says Downer. "The dancers aren't as many as there used to be. When we started, we were playing five or six nights a week. Every venue had to have a swing night. "It's not much of a fad anymore."The keys to the Rhythm Rockets' enduring popularity are their uniformly strong musicianship and a lack of turnover in the ranks, resulting in an extremely cohesive presentation. Vocalist Nicole Kestler has fronted the band in splendid fashion for 16 years. "She adds a lot of class and authenticity to the vocals," says Downer. Michael Bielecki, a wildman on tenor sax, has been on board for more than a decade. Bassist Lou Marini and baritone saxist Justin Keirans have been Rockets for at least five years, and the newest member, saxist Vince Salerno, knows the stylistic territory intimately, having performed in the Chicago Blues scene for close to 40 years.Drummer Mark Fornek was with the band early in their existence, split for awhile to tour with Chicago blues legend Jimmy Rogers and other local notables, then returned to the fold. Not coincidentally, the focus of the Rockets changed dramatically from its less sophisticated initial incarnation upon his return."We wore zoot suits and stupid hats and stuff. We didn't know any better. Back then with the swing scene going on, everybody was dressing like that," says Downer. "One of Mark's things was he didn't want to belong to a novelty act. He wanted to belong to a group that was authentic, that focused on the music and musicianship. A good part of how we changed was directly influenced by Mark's playing and his musical knowledge."The combo's repertoire (they've released half a dozen CDs) developed as time went on as well. "We used to play 'Jump, Jive, An' Wail' every night. At the time, it seemed like every band was doing it," says Downer. "'Caldonia' was another one we were always doing. The band we had in the beginning wrote a bunch of tunes that were kind of novelty-ish. Once Nicole and Mark joined the group, we picked out things that were a little more obscure, a little more authentic." Out went the novelty ditties and hackneyed standards, replaced by lovingly curated material culled from the postwar era that convincingly spotlights Kestler's seductive vocals (she's particularly drawn to the voluminous songbooks of Dinah Washington, Ella Mae Morse, Peggy Lee, and Etta James). Fornek and Downer take their turns behind the mic each set prior to Kestler's introduction.Not every change that time has wrought has been a welcome one. "What makes me feel old is trying to get the equipment in and out of the truck," laughs Downer. "I notice that it's gotten heavier." With Fornek currently teaching Downer's teenaged son Pierce how to properly play drums in a jump blues context, Downer isn't concerned about the music he loves becoming an anachronism in years to come. In the meantime, his Rhythm Rockets remain dedicated to dishing up the finest jump blues and swing to be found anywhere in the area. "It's like my bowling night, I guess," he says. "I get to go hang out with my friends and play some music that I really enjoy. It's my social time. That's why I keep going. It's not because of the money, that's for sure!"
The Rhythm Rockets return to Frankie's Blue Room in Naperville, where they once held a weekly performance for 9 straight years, to celebrate their 20th anniversary on Saturday January 14th, 2017. There will be a dance lesson prior to the show by Riley Wimes, who himself has been a part of the Chicago scene for over 20 years. ##