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PHOTOS: The Squirrel Nut Zippers bring their Christmas Caravan Tour to Reno

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Ladies and gentlemen, mesdames et messieurs, damen und herren, signore e signori, please welcome to the midway stage of the Virginia Street Brewhouse, the Squirrel Nut Zippers. They will sing and dance, they will amuse and entertain you. Let them into your hearts and they will never leave.

That’s kind of how it felt, anyway. The show evolves as if it could have been born in the post burlesque era with a dash of New Orleans jazz, Mardi Gras, and an internship in the 1930s German cabaret scene. Marvelously entertaining. 

It started with the comedy of Christopher Wonder and his chicken hypnotizing, balloon twisting, beer guzzling, confetti tossing, plate spinning and tattoo baring skills. Mr. Wonder came to the stage with his doppelganger ventriloquist dummy who said nothing as Wonder guzzled a whole beer. 

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Christopher Wonder and his doppelganger dummy open for the Squirrel Nut Zippers Dec. 6, 2022 at Virginia Street Brewhouse in Reno, Nev. Image: Nick McCabe / This Is Reno

I first encountered this addictive group of zany characters in the ‘90s, when it was actually a different group of zany characters except for the leader of the pack, Jimbo Mathus. All I remember from that show was liking it…a lot. I’ve been anticipating this Reno show since I first saw it announced, and it was well worth the wait.

The Zippers jumped right into the swing of things with their usual introductory number, the ever optimistic “Happy Days Are Here Again. And speaking of “swing,” they do just that. I spotted a small posse of gifted dancers scattered about who were joyfully swinging in their own style of exuberance. 

As if to say, “Just Kidding” they moved from “Happy Days” into the funeral dirge-esque, “La Grippe, which bemoans the plague of our time. As much as the lyrics reflect our current world dilemma, the song came out on their 1995 album, “The Inevitable.” I guess it was. 

“There’s an Asian influenza / Infecting us all by the scores / And it’s turning into pneumonia / We must go out once more” 

So as not to dwell in darkness, they brightened it up again with some of their Dixieland jazz energy with “The Suits Are Picking Up The Bill” from their 1998 release “Perennial Favorites.” The SNZ’s were all over their musical map: taking us from happy town, down to somber city. Their sardonic wit kept the atmosphere joyful all night. 

The Squirrel Nut Zippers are a nine-piece jazz/swing band complete with a horn section, drums, bass and keyboards. The front line is Dr. Sick on vocals, guitar, fiddle, banjo, glockenspiel and various percussion instruments, founding member Jimbo Mathus on lead vocals, guitars, banjo, also various percussion instruments, and the only female in the lineup, Cella Blue sharing lead vocals, multiple costume changes, dance and a joyful presence. 

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Helping to bring you into their festive web of celebration are their stage setup, props, on stage antics and colorful costumes. Dr. Sick’s makeup was reminiscent of a sad clown, but in a very subtle way as was his frequent sad aura. Mathus was constantly moving around the stage in his bright red suit strumming and strutting, jumping and jiving, and engaging with the audience, as was the lovely Cella Blue.

Without a doubt the most frenzied moment of the show was when they played their original song, “Hell” off of their first album which is considered to be their most successful and compelling song. It’s a jubilant calypso style song that revels humorously in the foreboding existence of the afterlife.

“In the afterlife / You could be headed for the serious strife / Now you make the scene all day / But tomorrow there’ll be hell to pay”

I found this show to be difficult to put into writing. The energy, music, and visuals of the Squirrel Nut Zippers can only be fully appreciated in person. Although a good video on a good screen through a great sound system will get you close, you really had to be there. There was room!

The Zippers

  • Jimbo Mathus – Lead Vocals, Guitars, Banjo, Percussion
  • Dr. Sick –  Vocals, Guitar, Fiddle, Banjo, Percussion
  • Cella Blue – Vocals
  • Leslie P. Martin – Piano
  • Neilson Bernard III – Drums, Guitar
  • Henry Westmoreland – Saxophone 
  • Colin Myers – Trombone
  • David Boswell – Trumpet
  • Mystery Man? – Bass

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Nick McCabe
Nick McCabe
Nick McCabe is a Reno-based photojournalist and musician. He’s been shooting concerts in the Reno-Tahoe area since 2006 and writing articles and reviews since 2012, as well as doing interviews on occasion. His musical education and playing experience goes back to 1967. He is a founding member of the Reno Tahoe Forte’ Awards, and he still plays music locally for enjoyment. First concert: Jimi Hendrix. Last concert: we’ll see.

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