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.