Cosmic dancers

The Claudettes return old school blues and a dash of punk to the Miami Valley

Photo: The Claudettes (l-r) Matthew Torre, Johnny Iguana, Berit Ulseth, Zach Verdoorn

By Tim Walker

Punk rock piano-playing blues troubadour that he is, Johnny Iguana is also a very busy man, and therefore, one not always so easy to connect with. When I interviewed him last winter, a few weeks prior to an area performance with his band, The Claudettes, he spoke to the Dayton City Paper by cell phone while walking through O’Hare International on the way to a family weekend in San Francisco. Dodging fellow travelers and airline staff, he was able to wrap up the interview while being called to board.

Now, after a week of emails, texts, and missed connections, Iguana—aka Brian Berkowitz—is speaking to me from the road, literally. He and the rest of The Claudettes are riding in their van on the way from their home base of Chicago to a show in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

“We had a wild summer in the sense of being prolific on the road,” Iguana says over the road noise, “We did 6000 miles and 22 shows in 24 days in Canada and the west coast. We had this van that was 18 years old, and we had two mechanics trying to keep it together, and the vehicle was just trying to die…the running boards were falling off, the ‘Check Engine’ light kept coming on. When it started, it sounded just like the beginning of ‘Double Nickels on the Dime’, that classic album by the Minutemen.”

The Minutemen are frequently referenced by Johnny Iguana as one of his top musical influences, along with Joe Strummer and bluesman, Junior Wells. “I grew up listening to a lot of music, but the blues and punk were my favorite things,” continues Iguana. “The tones and the sounds—the Claudettes are almost masquerading as a blues and roots band, because it’s those clean acoustic piano sounds—I limit myself to acoustic piano because I totally grew up worshipping all those Chicago blues piano traditions.”

But what happened to the van? “The upshot is, I was able to trade it in on a Ford Transit that I’ve now got outfitted with a great stereo. And it’s only got 271 miles on it.”

The Claudettes will be bringing their current show—and their new van—to two different Halloween-themed events in the Miami Valley this week. The Emporium Wines and Underdog Cafe in Yellow Springs will be hosting The Claudettes during their Halloween Costume Party and Wine Tasting this Friday night, October 27th, from 6:30 till 10pm. The following night, The Claudettes will perform during Spinoza Pizza and Salads’ “Dia de los Muertos” Halloween Party, at the Fairfield Commons Mall in Beavercreek. At Spinoza’s, the doors will open at 6pm, with the music starting at 7:30.

Iguana started The Claudettes as a two-person house band for a bar in Oglesby, Illinois—the band took its name from the supportive, if idiosyncratic, bar owner. The former duo has since grown in size, and now showcases a lineup of Iguana (piano, vocals), Zach Verdoorn (bass, vocals), Matt Torre (drums), and vocalist Berit Ulseth. Iguana honed his skills performing for years in various groups in Philadelphia, and with The Claudettes, he has carved out a niche in the modern music scene. The band’s website describes its music as a fusion of “Windy City piano blues with the full-throttle energy of rockabilly and punk, jazz-age echoes of burlesque and vaudeville, and the sultriness of ’60s pop-soul.” Obviously, there’s something there in the mix for almost all music lovers to appreciate.

“I’ve lived in Chicago now for about 20 years,” he says. “I moved out here and met Junior Wells, who was one of my three big musical heroes. I was a teenager at the time, and I was asked to join his band, and I’m still here. I like to call our music defiantly genre-less,” Iguana says with a laugh. “And yet I think we have one sound—there is a ‘Claudettes’ sound, and it’s got sort of a burlesque, vaudeville, gonzo sort of sound that’s rooted in the blues. It started with me trying to start a blues band, and it just didn’t take because I like so many different kinds of music.”

To date, they have released three albums of their unique take on the blues: 2013’s Infernal PianoPlot—HATCHED!, 2015’s No Hotel, and their 2017 digital-only EP release. Pull Closer to Me:Live in the Piano Room. Currently, they’ve wrapped up work on a fourth, tentatively titled The Claudettes Left My Home in Shambles!, which they hope to release next spring. “We’ve filmed five videos for the new album,” continues Iguana, “While we’ve been working to finalize its release. We’re really excited about it.”

If your Halloween plans take you to Yellow Springs or Beavercreek this week, make a point to check out The Claudettes and enjoy the band’s unique take on the blues.

The Emporium in Yellow Springs will be hosting The Claudettes during their Halloween Costume Party and Wine Tasting October 27th from 6:30 till 10pm. All ages are welcome, no cover charge. The Claudettes will also perform during Spinoza Pizza and Salads’ “Dia de los Muertos” Halloween Party, at the Fairfield Commons Mall in Beavercreek. Tickets are $25 in advance, $30 at the door. 19+ only. Doors open at 6pm, music starts at 7:30.

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Tim Walker
Tim Walker is 51 and a writer, DJ, and local musician. He lives with his wife and their two children in Dayton, where he enjoys pizza, jazz, and black T-shirts. Reach DCP freelance writer Tim Walker at TimWalker@DaytonCityPaper.com

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