One of the reasons why Tom Warnick shows are always worth checking out is that he’s constantly reinventing his songs. His most recent New York show, at Freddy’s last month, recast about half the songs. Meaning that the singer-keyboardist can take the exact same set list and completely flip the script with the songs. For example, Side Effects – as in, “I’m experiencing all your side effects, won’t you give ’em all to me” – used to be a boisterous newgrass song, as you might expect with a tune about a guy who won’t take no for an answer. But this time out, the band completely redid it, as a swing tune. Alto saxophonist Jason Reese, who’s been a charter member of the band for a long time, is getting and more time in the spotlight and making the most of it. You probably wouldn’t expect a sax player to take the music in as noir a direction as Warnick has returned to lately, but it’s happened. Reese slunk and slowly smoked and built ominous ambience through I’m a Stranger Here, which used to be an upbeat, cynical new wave-flavored tune but is now a minor-key circus rock number. And he teamed with Warnick for some disturbing chromatics through Cop Car, a cruelly funny tale of a highway pot bust that used to be a pretty straight-up blues but has been taken deep into Tom Waits territory without seeming cliched and imitative.
Likewise, the band took Lost in Place, which used to be total new wave, straight out of 1981, and gave it more of a swaying janglerock feel. And all this reinvention works because this crew – Warnick on piano and organ, Reese on sax, John Sharples and Ross Bonadonna on guitars, Scott Anthony on bass and the guy who plays drums under the pseudonym of Jacques Strappe in hilarious faux-French rockers Les Sans Culottes – can turn on a dime and play pretty much anything. Deep Jamaican roots reggae? That’s what the slow, grimly funny Old Man Blues is now. The grimmest number of the night was actually set to its most lighthearted tune, an oldschool country-folk sway – but maybe that was meant to reinforce a sense of irony. Warnick got a lot of flash going with his righthand organ lines as Bonadonna mined a satirical, over-the-top arenarock floridness on the reggae tune, Sharples switching between lingering chords and ominous chromatics. They finally relented to the crowd, who’d been pleading for 40 People, Warnick’s early-zeros classic about the increasing difficulty of even a good band (or for that matter a really bad one) getting booked into a decent New York gig at a decent hour on a decent day. They’re at Otto’s this Saturday, April 18 at 8, as good a time and place as any to find out what Warnick will be up to next. You can count on it being different than what he did at Freddy’s.