The lineup of The Claudettes has transmogrified once again.
The group started as an instrumental duo in 2011, then added a singer in a trio format in 2015. Now the group is a quartet, and leader Johnny Iguana is the only original member. Despite the heavy turnover, the quality has never suffered a bit, and The Claudettes’ recent online-only EP, “Pull Closer to Me: Live in the Piano Room,” finds the band as groovy as it’s ever been.
On Friday, the new four-piece version of The Claudettes performs at LangLab in South Bend.
“Some of the stuff is indie-rock, but with blues scales,” Iguana says by phone from his home in Chicago. “So there’s this rootsy alternative rock, but we’re also still doing some of our early instrumentals, which are sort of blues on steroids. We have singers coming and going from the stage, and we’re doing a lot with dynamics — beautiful slow songs, very fast songs, cartoon-like piano workouts. Now that we have a bass player, some of those old piano-drums instrumentals actually sound even better.”
Plenty of duo arrangements remain, however, with even more personnel permutations, too.
“Our newest song is a piano-vocal duet,” Iguana says. “You know how Led Zeppelin used to have the part of the set where they’d gather together and sit on stools and play acoustically? I want to have interspersed moments like that, with no drums and no amps.”
Iguana says that his current preference is to do a Minutemen-style barrage of short songs, around 21 per 60 minutes.
When the band was still an instrumental duo of Iguana and drummer Michael Caskey, the character of Claudette was more central to the operation. A grumpy — even slightly sadistic — bar owner, Claudette lost her lease and sent her house band on the road, hawking her hilarious drink specials on scrolling LED screens.
Iguana even employed actresses to portray Claudette and her deputy on stage at concerts. That incarnation released 2013’s “Infernal Piano Plot … Hatched!” For 2015’s “No Hotel,” Nigerian-American chanteuse Yana Atim joined the group, and her presence was so charismatic — she moonlights as a model — that there was no longer any need for Claudette to appear in person anymore. The LED screens usually remain, however, with those wacky drink specials or other bar-talk, such as, “Walk right in, set right down and tell Claudette who has been using her dumpsters.”
The new recruits are singer Berit Ulseth, singer/bassist/guitarist Zach Verdoorn and drummer Matthew Torre. They have wrapped up the recording sessions for their forthcoming album, the first with the new lineup, to be titled, “The Claudettes Left My Home in Shambles!”
For the new material, Iguana says he did what Duke Ellington recommended to bandleaders: Write music that is custom-made for the specific strengths of your current band.
“What’s the ideal range for her to sing in? What kinds of beats will this drummer be best suited for? You also wrangle through the things that might not be a good fit,” he says.
Iguana is best known for being a first-call blues piano ace in Chicago, and he’s played with a who’s-who of blues legends. He also served as a core member of the alternative rock band Oh My God. His own songwriting can sway in either direction or, more frequently, falls into a range somewhere between the worlds of blues and alternative music.
In addition to their original songs, there has also always been a rich tradition of Claudettes covers, which can come from practically anywhere: Chuck Berry’s “Havana Moon,” Little Brother Montgomery’s “Tremblin’ Blues” and The Sundays’ “Here’s Where the Story Ends” have all gotten The Claudettes’ treatment. The new EP ends with something that’s more of a mash-up than a medley, consisting of mostly Pink Floyd’s “Us and Them” but with occasional interference from Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.”
Picking out new covers for the new band has been a joy for the leader. After Ulseth makes her own striking debut on two original songs to open the new EP, Verdoorn gets his first vocal on a cover of T.Rex’s “Cosmic Dancer,” and he does a heck of a job.
“I knew that song would be perfect for him,” Iguana says. “It’s a song from outside the blues but with blues chord changes. It’s a mysterious, weird, sad song. It’s otherworldly and creepy and fab.”
T.Rex frontman Marc Bolan is a logical choice for The Claudettes, because he was steeped in boogie but also had a magical-elf side, with a lot of theatrical pop flair. That’s just the spot the new Claudettes material occupies.
“There was something about the guy,” Iguana says. “Like he was not of this Earth.”