“We don’t play with horns that much,” Big Lazy frontman/guitarist Steve Ulrich told the crowd late during their show headlining one of the year’s best triplebills at Drom Friday night. “Horns are,” he paused – and then resumed with just a flash of a menacing grin – ”Evil.” Then guest trumpeter Brian Carpenter and trombonist Curtis Hasselbring added a surreal acidity to the slow, ominous sway of a brand-new, ominously resonant film noir theme, Bluish.
“I wrote those harmonies to be as dissonant as possible,” Ulrich confided after the show. Which is ironic considering how little dissonance there actually is in Big Lazy’s constantly shifting cinematic songs without words. The trio’s sound may be incredibly catchy, but Ulrich really maxes out the ten percent of the time when the macabre bares its fangs.
Case in point: the wistfully loping big-sky tableau The Low Way, where a single, lingering, reverberating tritone chord from Ulrich’s Les Paul suddenly dug into the creepy reality lurking beneath blue skies and calm, easygoing facades.
Drummer Yuval Lion and bassist Andrew Hall held the sometimes slinky, sometimes stampeding themes to the rails as Ulrich shifted from the moody, skronk-tinged sway of Influenza to the brisk Night Must Fall, finally firing off an offhandedly savage flurry of tremolo-picking to bring the intensity to a peak in a split-second. From there the group took a turn into tricky tempos with the surrealistic bounce of Avenue X and then the crushingly sarcastic faux-stripper theme Don’t Cross Myrtle, the title track from the band’s latest album (ranked best of the year for 2016 here). Big Lazy’s next New York show is Dec 4 at 10 PM at Barbes.
As the leader of the Ghost Train Orchestra, Carpenter is known as a connoisseur of hot 20s swing and obscure, pioneering jazz composers from the decades after. This time he played mostly organ and guitar with his brilliant noir rock band the Confessions, second on the bill: it’s hard to remember two groups this good and this dark back to back at any New York venue in recent months. Guitarist Andrew Stern played murderously reverberating, sustained lines in a couple of long, suspenseful introductory buildups in tandem with violinist Jonathan LaMaster, bassist Anthony Leva and drummer Gavin McCarthy keeping a taut pulse through a mix of songs that sometimes evoked Tom Waits’ brooding Americana or the uneasy chamber pop of the Old Ceremony.
Frontwoman Jen Kenneally worked every offhand wiggle in her vibrato to add to the songs’ distantly lurid allure, often harmonizing with Carpenter’s brooding baritone. A relentless gloom pervaded the songs, rising to a peak in the tensely stampeding City on Fire and then hitting a high note at the end with Blinding Light, which ironically described darkness closing in as the band stomped into the chorus. Fans of Lynchian sounds shouldn’t miss this crew, who hark back to Carpenter’s early 90s circus rock days.
Opening act the Claudettes have gone in a completely different direction since ripping the roof off Barbes on a twinbill with Big Lazy a couple of years ago. These days, gonzo saloon jazz pianist Johnny Iguana has muted his attack somewhat: the band came across as a sort of Windy City counterpart to Lake Street Dive. Which isn’t a bad thing at all – Lake Street Dive are a great blue-eyed soul band.
New frontwoman Berit Ulseth channeled brass, ice and brittle vulnerability through the sarcastic I Expect Big Things and then the cruel punchline that followed, Declined. In yet another of the evening’s many strokes of irony, the group’s biggest hit with the audience was a Debussy-esque, low-key tone-poem of sorts about discovering a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The bandleader brought to mind New York beatnik jazz cult hero Dred Scott in the sardonically frantic barrelhouse instrumental You Busy Beaver You and then the slyly bluesy cautionary tale Creeper Weed, about how to avoid getting blindsided by one hit too many. They wound up the set with the understatedly gloomy The Show Must Go On (Then the Show Must End), part Waits, part early Steely Dan. The Claudettes tour continues; the next stop is back in their Chicago hometown at 9 PM on Nov 17 at the Hideout; cover is $12.
And as always, Drom – downtown New York’s most consistently diverse music room – has some cool upcoming shows. One especially interesting one is on Nov 25 at 10:30 PM, and it’s a rare free event there, with Polish crew Nasza Sciana doing vintage Slavic turbo-folk hits.