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Spottiswoode at Joe’s Pub: Elegant Dissolution

The most unselfconsciously beautiful solo during Spottiswoode’s album release show at Joe’s Pub Friday night came during the louchest song of the evening. Candace DeBartolo added subtle flourish to her deep-Coltrane tenor sax resonance during a number titled Love Saxophone. For anyone who hasn’t already guessed, you need a Y chromosome to own one. Frontman/guitarist Jonathan Spottiswoode said that at the time he’d written that one, he was “another person.”

There were many other unselfconsciously beautiful moments throughout the night. Still Small Voice Inside, one of the best tracks on the new album Lost in the City, comes across as cutting, knowingly aphoristic, Ray Davies-ish late 60s folk-rock. Onstage, the band played it even more mutedly – as it turns out, it has a spiritual dimension, inspired by a familiar saying by the bandleader’s North Dakota-born singer mom. Spottiswoode asked the sold-out crowd if they’d indulge him in a “kumbaya moment” on the vocalese section after the chorus: pretty much everybody sang along.

Another unexpected high point, if a similarly quiet one, was Batman & Robin. The band played this straight-up jazz song with elegance and grace, an expansively poignant, picturesque account of a guy trying to get the most out of weekend custody with his kids. Spottiswoode isn’t necessarily known as a jazz guitarist, but the song underscored whatever cred he wants to take from it.

There were plenty of loud songs, too, all of them drawn from the new album, since as lead guitarist Riley McMahon confided, this band never thought they’d never get back together after the bandleader’s recent relocation to his native London. Guest violinist Antoine Silverman’s shivery, slithery acerbic, Romany riffage kicked off The Walk of Shame, a booze-infused wee hours confrontation with grim reality. Throughout the show, Spottiswoode’s weathered baritone brought to mind Nick Cave, especially when he really cut loose. Knocking back several drinks – vodka cranberry, maybe? – during the set probably had something to do with that.

Trumpeter Kevin Cordt added ripe, Lynchian tones to raise the menace of the more cabaret-infused tunes. Bassist John Young switched nimbly between Fender and upright, drummer Tim Vaill maintaining a slinky, often latin-flavored groove and Spottiswoode fired off some unhinged blues licks during a couple of latin soul anthems. But the star of the night, musically, was pianist Tony Lauria. Shifting effortlessly between surreal Brecht/Weill blues, starlit neoromanticism, lively Afro-Cuban tumbles, funereal organ and even a perfect evocation of Springsteen pianist Roy Bittan, he put on a clinic in how to make the music match the mood. The group closed counterintuively and almost elegaically with I Don’t Regret, a calmly waltzing shout-out to Spottiswoode’s days living on East 5th Street, when the East Village was a hotbed of artistic talent. Those days are gone, for now anyway – but at least we have the album, and a group no worse for the wear and tear of 21 years together.

A Gorgeously Bittersweet Farewell to Manhattan from Art-Rock Maven Spottiswoode

The Manhattan that Jonathan Spottiswoode came up in back in the 1990s was far from perfect. The seeds of the city’s death by real estate speculation had already been sown. But there were a lot more places where an often witheringly lyrical, lavishly orchestrated rock band could play then than there are now. Spottiswoode & His Enemies may have sold out the release show for their latest magnum opus, Lost in the City, at Joe’s Pub on the 30th, but twenty-one years ago they could have done the same at a much bigger venue. So it’s fitting that the album – streaming at Bandcamp – is an elegaic salute to a vanished, urbane metropolis, and that Spottiswoode has since relocated to his London birthplace. At least we’ll always have the memories – and this epic.

While Spottiswoode is no stranger to largescale creations, this is arguably his most lavish release. He’s always had a knack for latin sounds, and he dives more deeply into the Spanish Caribbean here than ever before. The opening track is Hoboken. It’s dead ringer for a brooding Pink Floyd ballad: Spottiswoode’s voice has weathered to resemble Roger Waters more and more over the yearas, and Tony Lauria’s gospel-tinged piano completes the picture. The migthy Springsteenian bridge is spot-on, right down to Laura’s Roy Bittan impersonation. “I tried it like all the rest, not what I dreamed I guess, but I did ok,” Spottiswoode muses.

With its bluesy minor-key swing spiced with horn harmonies from saxophonist Candace DeBartolo and trumpeter Kevin Cordt, the title track could also be peak-era Springsteen. With Lauria’s erudite, Fever-ish solo at the center, it’s a long-lost cousin to 10th Avenue Freeze-Out. The nimble pulse of bassist John Young and drummer Tim Vaill propel the funny, filthy, syncopated latin soul anthem Love Saxophone, a look back to a period ten years further back, and several Manhattan blocks north and east. 

Antoine Silverman’s acerbic, Romany-flavored violin kicks off The Walk of Shame, a hauntingly orchestrated vignette of the dark side of the bright lights: “The night was so delicoius/Now a puddle is a mirror for Narcissus.” Then Cordt and trombonist Sara Jacovino work a punchy conversation in Because I Made You, a return to swinging oldschool soul.

The way Spottiswoode sets up the narrative in the distantly ominous, wistful clave-soul elegy Goodbye Jim McBride is too good to give away. The starkly bluesy, doomed, reverberating ambience of It’s on Me wouldn’t be out of place on Dylan’s Time Out of Mind album. Next, the band hit a slow, Lynchian swing groove with Batman & Robin, a disconsolate picture of a divorced dad out with his kids on the weekend.

Riley McMahon’s hailstone reverb guitar mingles with Lauria’s stern salsa piano and organ in Now Didn’t I? McMahon and the bandleader bulid spaghetti western menace over a 5/4 beat in Tears of Joy: as Lauria’s electric piano twinkles eerily overhead, it could be Botanica. Then the band hit a blazing soul-blues sway with Dirty Spoon.

A mashup of late 60s folk-rock Kinks and Springsteen E Street shuffle, Still Small Voice Inside could be the album’s most poignant, relevant number:

Hello, good evening
Did you accomplish what you planned?
Don’t you know the feeling
Too much supply no demand
Yeah it’s a drag, at least you tried
Now listen to the still small voice inside

Young’s big bass bends anchor McMahon’s lingering guitar and blues harp in Cry Baby. Wistful strings and Lauria’s elegant piano mingle in Sunset, a vivid, Ray Davies-esque vignette, followed by the wryly Waitsian swing blues Going Home for Christmas.

The album’s musical high point could be the swaying 6/8 noir soul instrumental East Village Melody, Cordt and then DeBartolo channeling wee-hours melancholy over the band’s glistening, distantly ominous backdrop. Spottiswoode’s gritty vocals soar in You’ll See, an unexpectedly optimistic Weimar waltz. The album winds up with I Don’t Regret, its lush strings and Leonard Cohen inflections: it’s an old rake’s colorful, defiant defense of a “sordid life.” The sounds on this album are old but timeless: it will age well, just like the guy who wrote it.

Spottiswoode and His Enemies Celebrate 15 Years of Art-Rock Brilliance

In the wake of the hurricane, Spottiswode and His Enemies didn’t know whether they’d be able to do the fifteen-year anniversary show they’d been working on right up until four days before the concert actually took place last night. But it was a last-minute triumph to rival any staged in New York this year. Adding a touch of class, a little holiday spirit and spot-on ambience, the nimble organist at St. John’s Lutheran Church on Christopher Street played a little Bach, a carol and finally a solo introduction to the band’s first song from her perch up in the balcony. It was a trope straight out of Pink Floyd, one of the groups that this inspired, sharp bunch of art-rockers resembles. In over three hours of music spanning two long sets, the band left no doubt that they’re even more formidable a beast than when they had their first New York residency at Coney Island High back in the 90s.

Bandleader Jonathan Spottiswoode uses artsy, lyrically-driven 70s British folk-rock as a stepping-off point for his often witheringly lyrical songs. For most of the show, he played acoustic guitar over lush, soaring arrangements from a six-piece band that included Riley McMahon on electric guitar, mandolin and glockenspiel, John Young on bass, Anthony Lauria on piano, organ and acccordion, Candace DeBartolo on tenor sax, plus a tersely excellent trumpeter and equally terse drummer who felt the room, held back and let his beats resonate in the boomy space.

Spottiswoode’s best songs are intense, and his cask-aged baritone conveys that, nonchalantly but vividly. This being a celebration of a band’s fifteen-year survival, they wasted no time looking at it dourly with Salvation, a gospel-tinged, Nick Cave-ish reflection on getting old: even a long, horn-driven crescendo didn’t lighten the mood. But Spottiswoode’s songs are self-aware. It only took him til song two to take a poke at the too-cool-for-school crowd: “Life is dreary if you’re world-weary,” he intoned over a brisk folk-rock shuffle. He led the band into noir tango-rock after thatwith  the Lou Reed-inflected Nice Girl, and then Enfant Terrible, a savagely sarcastic, vaudevillian waltz directed at a spoiled woman who “dresses her children like sluts” and won’t sleep with her much younger boyfriend because he slapped her around once. Those are the kind of details that populate Spottiswoode’s best songs and make them so entertaining.

The band was sensational. Was the high point of the night DeBartolo’s rain-drenched, gorgeously minimalist opening solo on the salsa-grooving You Will Rise Again? Or was it the paint-peeling guitar duel on a flamenco-tinged epic later in the first set, Spottiswoode and McMahon blasting through as feral a jam as Steve Wynn and Jason Victor could ever come up with? Good as the band was, they couldn’t have done as well without such solid material. The rest of the set ran the gamut from the blithely sardonic, cabaret-tinged Ukrainian Girl – a Quentin Crisp acolyte who turns out to be “a laboratory rat in her underwear” – to a long, theatrically shapeshifting take of the Bush War parable Wild Goosechase Expedition – to the understatedly poignant, Lennonesque Chariot, a considerably quieter but equally powerful antiwar song.

The second set was a lot looser, sometimes more carefree, sometimes more lush, notably on a careening, raspingly gloomy take of It’s All in the Past and a bit later with a long, nebulously atmospheric tableau, its narrator staring pensively at the Hoboken skyline from across the river, a song that predated the hurricane by several years but fit the lingering after-storm ambience like a glove. They finally closed the night with about fifteen minutes of one of those long, lusciously dark, psychedelic latin grooves that Spottiswoode does so well, You Won’t Forget Your Dream, allowing plenty of time for solos from pretty much the whole band. For a long time, this group was ubiquitous in this town; understandably, shows have grown fewer and further between. This happened to be one for the ages. Here’s hoping they do a thirtieth anniversary show someday where the hurricane comes afterward.