Pete Lanctot and the Hot Sardines Make a Killer Doublebill at Littlefield
Pete Lanctot personifies pretty much everything good about New York’s most happening music scene, which as just about everybody knows by now, is Americana. Lanctot’s aphoristic lyrics are loaded with layers of meaning: he’s probably the only songwriter who’s ever made a caustic rhyme out of “Delacroix” and “Evelyn Waugh.” He’s a strong tunesmith and storyteller, a gifted multi-instrumentalist on guitar and fiddle and also a nonchalantly charismatic stage presence. Thursday night at Littlefield, he led a sensationally good band through an all-too-brief, roughly 45-minute set celebrating the release of his latest album Caledonia (streaming at Bandcamp) The rhythm section of Hot Sardines drummer Alex Raderman and a versatile upright bassist, who colored a couple of the songs with with dark, elegant bowing, switched from slinky swing to a propulsive drive. Lanctot’s violinist played soaring sustained lines over which the band’s brilliant lead guitarist fired off jagged, murderous noir skronk, careening surf leads and assaultive blues. Lanctot began and ended on guitar, taking turn on fiddle and then banjo midway through the set.
While Lanctot’s songwriting is going to draw inevitable Tom Waits comparisons, the artist he most closely resembles is Tom Shaner – although where Shaner will sometimes go off on a rockabilly or Irish tangent, Lanctot’s fallback places are oldtime swing and blues. He kicked off the show with a wryly seductive country sway that shifted to shuffling swing on the chorus. “There’s a swamp for every goose, there’s a neck for every noose,” he intoned in his nonchalant tenor, alluding to the kind of snare his lovestruck narrator had walked straight into.
From there the band picked up the pace with a bitingly shuffling blues tune (the one with the snide references to the Louisiana town and the British novelist). Lanctot followed that with a warmly pastoral, gently metaphorical country tune told from the point of view of a 19th century immigrant:
I will lay down all my weapons when I stand before your gate
Bang my daggers into breadknives, make my bullets into plates…
I will keep the dogs of war at bay and call off all the alarms
From there they picked it up again with a searing, hellbound, bluesy account of a boss from hell somewhere on the Arkansas railroad, colored with diaboloical, staccato fiddle and the lead player’s switchblade tremolo-picking. They mined every inch of doom in the old folk lament Undone in Sorrow, a twin-fiddle number sprinkled with creepy accents from the drums and sepulchral flickers of overtones from the lead guitarist’s Strat. A brooding, swinging, minor-key banjo tune was the closest thing to Waits on the bill, followed by a snarling, stomping blues with a savage guitar solo that ended with a long Dick Dale slide down the low string – which promptly snapped. After a catchy, wistful kiss-off ballad that evoked Blonde on Blonde-era Dylan without any of the Dylan affectations, they ended the set with a roaring update on Slim Harpo’s Hip Shake. The encore was a pillowy, lullaby take of Ernest Tubb’s Waltz Across Texas with You, Lanctot getting the women in the crowd to sing along on the last chorus.
Anachronistic mindfuck par excellence: watching Hot Sardines pianist “Pee Wee,” a.k.a. Evan Palazzo vape on his electronic cigar throughout his oldtimey swing band’s jaunty 45 minutes or so. They made up a set list on the fly and then swung through it like crazy. Where Lanctot’s band maxed out the push-pull between the fiddle and lead guitar, the Sardines got plenty of livewire intensity this time out from the interplay of Jason Prover’s purist, blues-infused trumpet and Nick Myer’s sizzling spirals and trills on clarinet and tenor sax, while frontwoman “Miz Elizabeth” Bougerol breathed new life into a bunch of old standards with her brassy allure. Introducing a lively Fats Waller tune over a serpentine bass groove, she mused that if Waller was alive today, he’d be waking up at five in the evening somewhere in Bay Ridge, maybe on Ocean Avenue – drunk. She told the crowd that while the band didn’t do a lot of Brooklyn shows, this one was right up their alley, most of the group done up in plaid shirts and mismatched bolo ties. And she had a point: it was good to hear them playing through Littlefield’s pristine sound system, considering the band’s ongoing monthly residency at feeedback-plagued Joe’s Pub.
She sang most of a bouncy version of Once Love in flawless French; a little later, she brought Lanctot back up onstage for a turn on fiddle through what she termed a “hoedown,” and then a big dixieland romp through What the Moonlight Can do. Palazzo ran a droll Grieg quote through the first verse of a ragtime-inflected take of I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance before they wound up the set with Bei Mir Bist Du Shein, Myer’s moody clarinet adding a dark klezmer edge.