Fat Tuesday with The Dandelion Stompers
The Mill -- Tuesday, Feb. 25 at 6 p.m.
Don’t go to a Dandelion Stompers show expecting to just sit there and watch.
“Oh, man,” said Dandelion Stompers bandleader Chris Clark. “Dancers really make it a party. We work hard to interact with the audience when they’re sitting down and watching, but once they are up and dancing, it goes to a whole new level.”
After forming in 2014, this New Orleans-style traditional jazz group has built up quite a following that can bust many a move — from the lindy hop and foxtrot to balboa and even a little country line dancing thrown into the mix.
Dandelion Stompers shows are participatory events, and their upcoming annual Mardi Gras show at the Mill on Feb. 25 will tear the roof off the sucker.
“From the beginning,” vocalist Katie Roche said, “we’ve been attracting swing dancers, and the dance floor is always packed — the sweatiest, most committed dancers.”
“They play swing music, and they’re pretty freaking good at it,” said Zach Beckman, who started listening to this style in 2018 when he was a senior in college, soon after he hooked up with a group of Cedar Rapids-based swing-dance enthusiasts named 5 Seasons Swing. “There’s always this interplay between the band’s energy and the dancers’ energy, particularly communicated through the breaks in the song and the overall feel of the music.”
“I love the energy at live shows, and at Dandelion Stompers shows in particular,” added Tonia Walters, also from 5 Seasons Swing. “We want to dance to music we enjoy, played by musicians who love what they do. You can tell they are enjoying themselves, and that feeds the dancers’ energies. It’s a bit of a symbiotic relationship.”
It was like bees to honey. From the very beginning, a core group began following the Stompers from show to show (the band plays about 15 to 25 gigs a year). Think Deadheads, minus the visual markers of that particular milieu — no tie-dyes and noodle dancing. Instead, you’re more likely to see sharp-dressed folks doing the sailor step.
“When I go out, I really like to see a show. I want a lot of sound and fun up there,” Clark said. “Seeing people time their moves to our song really creates a feedback loop that pushes us to take it up a notch.”
The Dandelion Stompers largely stick to jazz and blues music of the 1920s, with a few 1930s numbers thrown in and the occasional cover of a contemporary song done in a trad-jazz style. They have, for instance, covered Dave Moore’s “Who Stole the Preacher’s Whiskey?,” whose subject matter fits right in with the other vintage tunes.
“Chris is very conscious of adhering to playing songs of the era,” Roche said. “It’s bawdiness, dirty lyrics, turns of phrase and the language is so much fun. So many of the songs are about drugs and sex.”
Roche had been talking to Clark for years about wanting to sing jazz — to belt and let loose — as opposed to singing pretty with Awful Purdies and other groups. The two quickly realized that their mutual love of early jazz was an obvious jumping-off point.
“I started looking around for more interested folks,” Clark said, “and I really hit the jackpot with this band! All the horn players came from a jazz background, and the rhythm players were coming in from an old-time and bluegrass background. It just worked out.”
The Dandelion Stompers’ original mixed-gender lineup included Roche on vocals and Clark on baritone sax — though he plays several instruments very well — along with Ira Greenstein on trombone, Katie Greenstein on trumpet, Suzanne Smith on clarinet, bassist Brandi Janssen, guitarist Marc Janssen and Jacob Yarrow on alto sax.
“Later on,” Clark said, “Devin van Holsteijn joined us on alto sax and Tim Crumley on trumpet and cornet and later percussion. I feel really lucky to play with this group of people.”
The band works from sheet music, which creates a basic map that lets the musicians explore, improvise and reinvent a song as they go. Chris Clark functions as a kind of conductor, organizing the live performance through a combination of hand signals, foot-pointing, eye contact and plain old shouting to signal when, for instance, someone takes a solo.
“So as long as you have the map, you can go exploring,” Roche added. “What I really enjoy about playing jazz is that you can’t be at the table and not be able to hang with the mystery of it, and go somewhere different. The happiest moment in any show is when we’re laughing at the surprise of where the song landed.”
Given all this, the Dandelion Stompers are ideal musical hosts for a Mardi Gras-themed event, timed for Fat Tuesday, the last big night of revelry before Lent. The best kind of revelry always includes loud, raucous music, and the Stompers are happy to oblige.
For the band’s sixth annual Mardi Gras show, the Mill has adapted its menu to echo the flavors of New Orleans. This food (and drink) will serve as fuel for the calorie-burning dancers, many of whom are connected to the University of Iowa Swing Dance Club, Balboa Club and 5 Seasons Swing — along with an assortment of ballroom dancers and people who just want to freestyle.
“The dancers are a very diverse range of people,” Roche said. “All kinds of ages and orientations, all sorts of people.”
“The local social dance scene is really strong right now,” Clark added, “and there are clubs in Iowa City, Cedar Rapids, Des Moines and the Quad Cities. Folks who like dancing to live music will go out of their way to see a band they enjoy, and we are lucky enough to have become friends with some amazing dancers over the years.”
Most Dandelion Stompers shows end with the musicians applauding the dancers, for good reason.
“The sheer unadulterated joy of limbs moving, music blasting, pure expression and happiness — that’s why I do it,” said Zach Beckman. “Because all these words boil down to this: Dancing makes me feel great. That’s really all there is to it.”
“At the end of the day,” Clark said, “what I have to do is play music I’m passionate about … while bringing some joy into the world. When I’m playing, dancing or even just listening to this stuff I am filled with joy.”
Kembrew McLeod is a fancy dancer. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 279.