“I see a parade of people coming down the road,” Tom Shaner sang, cool and low, as the band behind him jangled and clanged through a catchy series of minor chords over a slow, undulating beat at LIC Bar Wednesday night. “All of those people are more or less alone.”
That song, Lake 48, goes back to the late 90s, when Shaner was leading a richly dusky desert rock band called Industrial Tepee. It was slower and slinkier then; over the years, Shaner has tightened it up a bit. The procession in the song hasn’t changed: all of those people are slowly making their way down to a place “Where the great spirit waits,’ and it seems they’re pretty determined to get there because if they miss their exit, they might end up at Lake 47.
“The number doesn’t matter,” Shaner ad-libbed. “But we won’t get there together,” he added.
There was also a parade in the slowly swaying, distantly spaghetti western-flavored opening number, another Industrial Tepee tune, along with several other slightly less gloomy existential moments. “It’s the wrong kind of silence here, like everybody wants to disappear,” he intoned in Viva Las Nowhere, pianist Mary Spencer Knapp adding twisted tango glitter. She calls herself an accordion shredder, which is true, but here she was just as colorful, shifting effortlessly and intuitively through two-fisted chords and jaunty riffage that drew as much on stride piano and oldtime blues as they did cabaret and circus rock.
“There were more trees here,” Shaner recounted, explaining to the crowd that he’d envisioned the drum sound in New York City Is Paradise Number 2 – a place you either eat, or it eats you – to evoke the echo of something being hit in the woods, rather than amidst concrete and steel. He’d grown up in Queens hearing both sounds, the latter more and more frequently.
Not everything in the set was as ominous. Shaner has written a lot of funny, theatrical numbers about she-devils, and the latest one, Carol’s House of Cruelty was an especially lurid, over-the-top tale about the unlucky guys who don’t have the sense to stay out. He also led the band through a pulsing take of Groove Queen, a cynically anthemic mashup of 60s Laurel Canyon psychedelia and Tom Waits blues. The rest of the show was a little more subdued, a chance for his purposeful bassist, drummer and lead guitarist to add subtle hints of oldschool soul and a little C&W.
Beyond sheer songwriting prowess, Shaner is an anomaly in what’s left of the New York rock scene. He doesn’t tour a lot – LIC Bar is his home base, more or less – but he gets a lot of high-profile film and tv placements and puts out the occasional excellent album. Watch this space for upcoming shows. If smart tunesmithing is your thing, LIC Bar has been on a roll with a lot of that lately: Melissa Gordon, frontwoman of the brilliant, new wave-ish Melissa & the Mannequins has a Monday night 10 PM residency there this month, including tonight, Feb 18. Another songwriter who has a lot in common with Shaner, the southwestern gothic-influenced Miwa Gemini, opens at 9.