The Claudettes shake up Chicago blues at Blue Note Bistro

By Tim Walker

Photo: The Claudettes’ (l-r) Zach Verdoorn, Berit Ulseth, Matt Torre, and Johnny Iguana perform at The Blue Note Bistro April 14; photo: Marisa Klug-Morataya

Johnny Iguana is no stranger to airports, it seems, and he’s comfortable speaking over the phone with Dayton City Paper as he walks through Chicago’s sprawling O’Hare International Airport toward his departure gate. However, this particular trip westbound to San Francisco has nothing to do with his well-known punk blues band The Claudettes.

“I wish I was performing [in San Francisco] this weekend,” he says. “We’re probably going to be out there in August, actually. But for right now, I’m taking quite a rare trip with my wife and my 9 year old just to see a friend.”

Though Iguana is headed out of the Midwest, he will be back in time for The Claudettes April 14 performance at Miamisburg’s Blue Note Bistro. A 1928 bank restored to a fine dining jazz lounge and speakeasy, the Blue Note is fast becoming a destination spot for local lovers of great music and fine food.

When it comes to music, Johnny Iguana knows a thing or two, and he’s not afraid to share that knowledge. The pianist made his bones performing for years in various groups, and with The Claudettes, he has carved out a unique—and almost unclassifiable—niche in the modern popular 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.” There’s something there for all music lovers to appreciate, although Iguana has said the band’s shows tend to go over better in jazz bars and aren’t always well-received—or understood—at more traditionally-minded blues clubs.

Iguana—aka Brian Berkowitz—never imagined he would settle down in the Midwest.

“I’m originally from Philadelphia,” he says, “but I’ve lived in Chicago now for about 20 years. I moved out here and thought I’d be here for two or three years at most. But then I met Junior Wells, who was one of my three big musical heroes. I was a teenager, and I managed to meet him and join his band, and I’m still here.”

Eventually moving on to form his own band in 2011, Iguana started The Claudettes as a two-person instrumental house band for a tavern in Oglesby, Illinois. The band adopted its name from the tavern’s idiosyncratic but supportive owner. The group has since grown in size, and now feature a lineup of Iguana (piano, vocals), Zach Verdoorn (bass, vocals), Matt Torre (drums), and vocalist Berit Ulseth. To date, they have released three albums of their twisted take on the blues: 2013’s Infernal Piano Plot—HATCHED!, 2015’s No Hotel, and their 2017 digital-only EP release Pull Closer to Me: Live in the Piano Room. They’re currently working on a fourth, tentatively titled The Claudettes Left My Home in Shambles!  

“I grew up listening to a lot of music, but the blues and punk were my favorite things,” Iguana says. “The tones and the sounds—the Claudettes are almost masquerading as a blues and roots band, because it’s clean acoustic piano sounds—I decided to limit myself to acoustic piano because I totally grew up worshipping all the Chicago blues piano traditions. There’s a lot of that in it. But along with that, there’s this ethos, the spirit of all the punk stuff that I loved. Like the Minutemen, Joe Strummer and the Clash—Joe was another one of my musical heroes.”

One of the new original songs the band is performing, “Influential Farmers,” typifies their offbeat style. A mix of juke joint piano and sweet, almost tender vocals over a shuffling backbeat, the song really comes to life when the band takes it up-tempo, revealing just a hint of those punkish roots. “It’s not 1989 no more,” Ulseth and Verdoorn sing at one point.

“I like to call it 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.”

Sharing their love of music, and steeped in the traditions of the blues and punk rock, The Claudettes promise to put on a memorable show—one you won’t want to miss—at the Blue Note Bistro.

 

The Claudettes play Friday, April 14 at the Blue Note Bistro and Lounge, 23 E. Central Ave. in Miamisburg. Show starts at 8 p.m. Guitarist Danny Voris is also on the bill. For more tickets and more information, please visit TheClaudettes.com or call 937.247.3000.

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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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