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Live Review and Photo Gallery: The Claudettes at The Venue • Aurora

| May 2, 2022

The Claudettes

The Venue, Aurora, IL

Friday, April 29, 2022

Review and photos by Jeff Elbel

This year holds the potential for good things for the Claudettes, and the band is working hard to make up for the lost time. The Chicago-based quartet released High Times in the Dark in early 2020 to a strong response from fans and the press, but plans to support the album with international touring were scuttled by the pandemic lockdown. In the meantime, prolific principal songwriter and pianist Johnny Iguana continued to produce material for the band to record. At last, the band is back on the road and busy as ever, bringing those new songs with them. The Claudettes performed for hometown fans and friends at City Winery last week. The group departs for European dates in two weeks. On Friday night, the Claudettes made a sortie into the suburbs to perform at the inviting venue The Venue in Aurora, Illinois. 

The group recalled its roots as an instrumental combo by opening with the rumbling “New Orleans Yard Sale” and the manic “Infernal Piano Plot…HATCHED!” Singet Berit Ulseth joined for the sly and purring “Don’t Stay With Me,” accompanied by Zach Verdoorn’s swooping slide guitar. The songs performed were steeped in the Claudettes’ melting pot of sound, drawing upon American styles including blues, jazz, New Orleans stroll, torch ballads, whimsical Raymond Scott-styled cartoon orchestration, punk, pop, and rock. Flourishes of Gershwin colored Iguana’s piano as Ulseth chastised a lazy lover in “Bad Babe, Losin’ Touch,” while grinning drummer Michael Caskey played a lively tango. 

Bassist and singer Verdoorn’s versatile playing included taut leads on the pragmatic but grateful “The Show Must Go On (Then the Show Must End)” and feral Chris Squire-styled bass on “Bill Played Saxophone.”

Ulseth covered broad territory as well, from sassy, brassy, and sultry to sensitive crooning and pristine pop. Driving blues-rocker “24/5” threw cold water onto an overzealous Casanova. “Declined” was an equally cheeky kiss-off to a hapless suitor, delivered as a corporate rejection letter. “Time Won’t Take Our Times” was delivered with fond sentiment and nostalgia. Ulseth sang “Ruler of My Heart” as an alluring torch song.

“This is a dance number,” said Iguana, introducing “Billy’s Blues.” After a freewheeling surf-rock excursion by the band, Ulseth rejoined to carry an energetic coda. The band had some success drawing dancers to the floor, and Iguana encouraged everyone to get into the action however they chose. “I like to bob my head, and I like to tap my toe,” he said. “I read the ground rules on the way in. You can do both of those things here.”

Highlights of the performance included a clutch of new songs to be released on a new album called The Claudettes Go Out, due in October on Forty Below Records. Iguana introduced the fresh cuts with anecdotes, and the songs were engaging and sharp-witted. “This is a song that puts a happy face on a dire situation,” said Iguana when introducing “Dozing in the Crypt.” “Exposure” featured clever wordplay a la King Crimson’s “Elephant Talk,” hinging upon the old musician’s response to being asked to play uncompensated for exposure. “People die from exposure,” shouted Iguana in response to Verdoorn and Ulseth during the chorus. 

“Cowboy” featured a tale borne of the pandemic isolation, with a protagonist striving to eliminate his most self-destructive vice. The subject has realized that the drinking is well and good, but finds that music is leading him to ruin. “My doctor said I should watch it with the band,” sang Ulseth. The dramatic “American Sky” was sung with cinematic flair, painting the portrait of a keyboard warrior enamored with the sound of his or her own virtual voice and imagining the character’s one-sided political talking points rising gloriously to clothe the heavens in majesty. The Claudettes Go Out promises no shortage of pathos, humor, or sarcasm.

The Claudettes’ concert concluded as Verdoorn led the swooning pop of Buddy Holly’s “True Love Ways,” joined in sweet harmony by Ulseth, who swayed to Caskey’s gliding drumbeat.

The bill was enhanced with an opening set by Chicago blues treasure Lurrie Bell. Bell led a sharp rhythm section alongside longtime collaborator Matthew Skoller on harmonica, playing a set of standards and original fare that rang with authenticity. “I’m gonna play my guitar a while,” said Bell midway through “Honey Bee.” He proceeded to pull lyrical and emotive figures from his red Gibson hollow body guitar. Bell called keys, tempos, and rhythms to his attentive band throughout the set, featuring blues ballads, jump blues, and shuffles. “I’m gonna switch it up and try a little something by Mr. Pops Staples,” said Bell, introducing the soulful “Why Am I Treated So Bad?” Bell called Iguana to the stage for piano on a pair of songs, closing with Muddy Waters’ “Got My Mojo Working.” Bell could barely keep his seat by the end of the set, rocking in his chair and kicking with spirit. Iguana praised Bell’s dedication later during the Claudettes’ set. “When you pass by Lurrie’s hotel room, you don’t hear CNN and you don’t hear snoring,” he said. “You hear guitar.”

-Jeff Elbel


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