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.