For a staggering 17 years, Andy "Smoky" Weiner, his band the Hot Links, and a tight collective of fellow local music veterans have hosted Romp in the Swamp, a night of blues, food, and music at Bowens Island Restaurant. The annual event has come to represent a unique era in the Charleston music scene. In 2000, Weiner met with mayor Joe Riley to address the lack of local blues musicians in Piccolo Spoleto. "They had blues shows put on by jazz combos, but none of the six or seven blues bands who were working regularly could get a Piccolo gig," he remembers.
This meeting led to the creation of the Homegrown Blues Series, and the Hot Links and company began to secure gigs at local clubs, on Charleston harbor tours, and at Bowens Island.
Around a year later, Weiner introduced the concept of Romp in the Swamp, taking the sound the Hot Links were known for — "a mix of blues, swing, rockabilly, bluegrass, rock, surf, and an Italian porno movie theme" — and making a celebration out of it. The first Romp featured Weiner's band as backup with Smoky on harmonica, joined by fellow musicians Chuck "The Cat" Morris and Juke Joint Johnny.
This first Romp was followed by local blues pianist Shrimp City Slim's event Guitar Smackdown. "Both were astonishingly well-attended," says Weiner. "The end of it was one of the greatest and most unplanned things I ever did or saw at a gig. Juke was in the center, I was on one side, and Chuck was on the other. He was playing a double shuffle I think, and he jumped up on a table in the middle of the dock house and leaped off as we were blasting away. The crowd parted like the Red Sea, like a wheat field in a windstorm, and he strode out of the dock house with me and Chuck on either side, and the people went nuts. I don't think you could have choreographed it."
The group has accumulated many stories in this vein over the years and has undergone its own transformations and developments since they first started playing at Bowens. Weiner describes the Romp as "the band plus Bowens Island" and notes that the original restaurant burning down in 2006 has definitely changed things. At around this time, the band started taking on dual musical personas, letting their myriad of influences lead them in different directions. With the arrival of blues guitarist "Nature Boy" Nik Pappas, the band played mostly "old-school blues," such as Sonny Boy Williamson, Elmore James, and the Hollywood Fats. With College of Charleston professor Dr. Kim May on guitar, the group played more "rocking blues" like Stevie Ray Vaughan, Hendrix, Cream, and Clapton. Pappas unfortunately passed away last August of a sudden cardiac arrest. "No drugs. No anything," Weiner remarks on his best friend's passing. "He rode a bike every single day. Didn't smoke. I'm just starting to think about playing again. He affected everything around here for years and continues to."
On the other side of this tragedy, it's still possible for Weiner to look back fondly on the history the performers share together. The band has performed benefit concerts for children with autism at Camp Good Times several times and were joined by the Charleston Chamber Players, a quartet from the Charleston Symphony Orchestra. "Another very memorable gig was one of the inaugural balls in D.C. when Obama won his first term," Weiner continues. "I'm chatting with a guy there and after a while I said, 'So what do you do?' He said, 'I'm the Governor of New Hampshire.' Didn't know what to say ... We saw some sort of African Prince or King walking around. Crown, cape, entourage and everything."
This year's Romp will feature Weiner joined by the Hot Links' longtime rhythm section, bassist John Auwaerter, and drummers Stevie Kent and Greg Levkus. Roy Brooks, Chicago Lee Richardson, and Dr. Kim May will be on guitar, and Louie D. and Keith Namm will add saxophone to the set. Alongside Weiner's own harmonica playing, Rob Posey of Edisto Island's Cotton Blue, Chuck "The Cat" Morris, and Juke Joint Johnny will be on deck, forming what Weiner calls the Charleston Philharmonica.
On Thurs. May 30, you can catch a screening of the film Bowens Island Blues at 9 p.m. Shot by Thomas Oliver and Filmmakers Inc. of Asheville, the film documents last year's Romp in the Swamp and is the last recorded performance of the band with Pappas.
On the Romp's continuing significance, Weiner says, "It represents our beautiful Lowcountry and the beautiful people in it. It's like how you see your family and old friends at a wedding. It's an occasion for the public."
Tickets for Romp in the Swamp, the screening of Bowens Island Blues, and Wanda Johnson (more on this show in next week's issue) can be purchased at smokyweiner.com or at the door.