The Rhythm Rockets have come a long way since they played their first gig at a nightclub in Chicago’s Western suburbs on New Year’s Eve of 1996. Over the last decade-and-a-half, they’ve steadily emerged as one of the city’s top Jump, Rhythm & Blues combos, incorporating a measure of jazz into their elegant presentation as well.
Formed at the height of the neo-swing craze, the jump-and-jive influences of Louis Jordan and Louis Prima were once a primary part of their approach. But along the way, they’ve tapped into the horn-driven postwar jump blues sound so securely and with such irresistible gusto that they’ve entirely transcended a short-lived trend once defined by Brylcreem and Zoot suits. Whether you enjoy cutting a rug on the dance floor or simply sitting back and grooving to their swinging musical attack, this outfit always delivers the goods, respecting the idiom without rendering it a museum piece as too many of their one-time peers did.
In short, the Rhythm Rockets are a guaranteed good time, full of boundless energy, top-flight musicianship, and flat-out fun. Captivating singer Nicole Kestler has fronted the band since 2000. So beguiling is her vocal delivery that their repertoire is now dominated by classic material from the postwar era by Dinah Washington, Big Maybelle, Peggy Lee, Ella Mae Morse, Ruth Brown, Etta James, and Annie Laurie, relegating those two bandleaders named Louis to the back burner.
Guitarist/band founder Dave Downer has recruited some of Chicago’s leading musicians into the Rhythm Rockets ranks, and they keep things cooking like crazy. Mark Fornek is formidable behind his drum kit, just as he was when he was keeping time for some of the city’s top blues artists (Jimmy Rogers, Dave Specter). He meshes with upright bassist Lou Marini in perfect swinging synchronicity, Mark occasionally exhibiting his vocal chops in duet with Nicole to boot.
Tenor saxist Sam Burckhardt is known internationally for his many years backing blues piano patriarch Sunnyland Slim, founding member of the Mighty Blue Kings, as well as his subsequent ventures as a band leader and solo artist. Mike Bielecki, the band’s other fine tenor saxist, is a genuine wildman, honking from his knees and walking the bar in extroverted tribute to greats of the past like Joe Houston and Big Jay McNeely. Berklee-educated baritone saxman Justin Keiran keeps the horn section rock-steady on the bottom.
The septet plays approximately 100 dates every year all over the Chicagoland area and beyond their Illinois borders as well. They held down Wednesday evenings at Frankie’s Blue Room in Naperville for nine successful years. The combo currently holds down a monthly residency at their favorite Chicago venue, the classy supper club Katerina’s on West Irving Park Road, inevitably packing the house. They’ve released four self-produced albums: Come Ride The Rockets (1998), Real Men Don’t Do Housework (1999), Take Off (2004), and Jump And Shout (2008), and their original songs graced four episodes of FOX-TV’s 2001 program, The Tick.
Downer, a native of Chicago’s western suburbs, founded the Rhythm Rockets after being inspired by a locally popular jump/swing outfit in 1995. That band’s exciting music was right up his alley. Fitting into the confines of a then-current musical trend didn’t even cross his mind. “When I put the band together, I didn’t realize that everybody was swing dancing,” says Dave, whose earliest influences included Elvis’ seminal lead guitarist, Scotty Moore (these days, the crisp, blues-kissed licks of T-Bone Walker, Tiny Grimes, and Pee Wee Crayton inform Dave’s fretwork). “I didn’t even give it much thought. I just liked the music. I love shuffle blues and stuff like that, and to me that was the ultimate, with the saxophones, the upright bass. “In reality, what we were doing was just the old rhythm and blues.”
The Rhythm Rockets not only sound right, they look every inch the part of a vintage Rhythm & Blues outfit. Everyone’s impeccably dressed in suits and ties (except Nicole, obviously); illuminated music stands bearing the band’s logo stand before the horn players. They need them, too. The Rhythm Rockets’ repertoire encompasses a vast 160 selections, including several tasty originals and at least one number penned by Dave’s late grandmother, a jazz-loving hipster who wrote “I’ll Take A Holiday From Love” in the 1930‘s never knowing someday her grandson’s band would lovingly perform it.
Currently enjoying the release of their fifth album, She Swings Blue, the Rhythm Rockets blast off to loftier heights with every gig and every recording. It’s safe to say the sky’s the limit.
--Bill Dahl journalist/music historian
Nicole Kestler- Vocalist
Dave Downer- Guitarist
Mark Fornek- Drums
Mike Bielecki- Tenor Sax
Sam Burckhardt- Tenor Sax
Justin Keirans- Baritone Sax
Lou Marini- Upright Bass