by Ben Swenson
Beloved local band has emerged from the pandemic, ready to make you boogie.
West Palm Beach is a long way from Williamsburg, but Florida is where Good Shot Judy was headed last spring when COVID-19 brought stormy weather. The gig was an indication of the band’s snowballing success – 160 shows a year and serious plans for a national tour. But that evaporated before their eyes as stages went dark and the world hunkered down.
The good news was that Good Shot Judy had already struck the right chord; its repertoire an anthology of American music’s soul, its stage presence gushing charismatic swagger. The Williamsburg-based ensemble’s appeal has carried it through the lean months of the pandemic, as crowds that once packed the house stayed loyal, following them online to livestreamed concerts and selling out the handful of socially-distant shows they’ve staged.
Good Shot Judy’s staying power seems anchored in both the audience’s appetite for live, bygone music and a dazzling delivery that provides the bridge between there and here.
“We’re rooted in swing and the big band era,” says singer and ukulele player Brett Cahoon, frontman for the band, which includes vocalist Chelsea Champ, a robust horn section, drums, piano and double bass. But Good Shot Judy hardly limits its range to iconic crooners such as Dean Martin, Nat King Cole and Harry Belafonte. Cahoon says they’ll try most anything that could work with horns, including tunes by Frankie Valli and Nancy Sinatra.
A Good Shot Judy show features familiar tunes, but the songs themselves are only part of the band’s allure; there’s something electric in the performance. They look the part of swing kings, taking the stage suspendered and bow tied. Cahoon adds a dapper dinner jacket. Champ brings glitzy flair in evening wear that’s equal parts sassy and seductive. A bulbed marquee announces Good Shot Judy’s name in the background. Behind all this there’s thought, finesse, history. They seem plucked off the grainy, curved screen of some midcentury TV.
Inspiration for the band started across the York River in Gloucester, where Brett Cahoon and his younger brother, Jeff Cahoon – the band’s double bass player – grew up cranking out tunes in garage bands.
In fact, Good Shot Judy’s name pays homage to those roots. The Cahoons’ mother, Judy Cahoon, was an avid golfer and every time she took a swing an older friend and fellow golfer would pump her fist and holler across the links, “Good shot, Judy!” The gesture became an inside family joke, and eventually, the band’s name. It’s a laugh that gets a little twisted sometimes – they’ve been called One Shot Judy and Good Luck Judy, among other well-meaning flubs, Brett Cahoon says.
The Cahoons had some early success. Their punk rock band, Ten Years from Now, snagged radio airtime and took part in the Vans Warped Tour for three years in the early aughts. But when the band ran its course in 2009, the brothers mulled the idea of a different direction altogether. Brett Cahoon was already a jazz fan and had learned to fake iconic standards on piano. Jeff Cahoon traded the heavy reverb of the electric bass for its softer and wooden upright cousin. They formed a small combo that Jeff Cahoon says was often focused more on cocktails than music.
The music they played came with a reputation – sultry and avant-garde, at home more in a smoky New York City basement lounge than in a Tidewater, Virginia, club. But it was magical and, they noticed, popular; they knew it deserved more. “We thought, how do we take these wonderful standards and make it so that it’s fun to go see with broad appeal,” says Brett Cahoon.
The answer, as it turns out, was energy. Part of that came with expanding the membership. The core of Good Shot Judy eventually became eight members, a number that occasionally rises into the teens for special occasions. From there, “the energy came organically,” says Jeff Cahoon, whose head-bobbing and bass-twirling come standard at any Good Shot Judy show.
They treat their performances as one long party where they don’t take themselves too seriously. Revelers often find band members exiting the stage mid-song to stand among the audience. At an outdoor performance in Gloucester in November, trumpeter Ellis Williams hopped offstage, horn and all, to leg-kick right alongside a couple women to the tune of “New York, New York.”
But the bottom line is that big music fills the venue, potent and vigorous, pouring from the instruments like a flood. Brett Cahoon’s rich tenor has the heft and tenacity to carry any tune that comes along. Champ’s vocals bring a steamier mood, her vibrato polished and deliberate.
It’s a sound that she almost forsook. The youngest of the group at 30, Champ studied opera performance in college, but could never quite abandon her feisty style. “A professor tried to train the jazz sound out of my singing,” she says.
And while the average Good Shot Judy fan is older, the band’s energy attracts a younger set, too. That allure is part of what makes Good Shot Judy pandemic-proof. “This is music that’s not going to drive grandma out of the wedding reception, but the younger people can see and feel the swagger,” Brett Cahoon says.