BENTON HARBOR - Times are tough, especially for musicians.
That's how Johnny Iguana, the piano player perhaps best known for his role in the alternative-rock band Oh My God, justifies his current situation with The Claudettes.
Iguana and drummer Michael Caskey were under contract as the house band at an Oglesby, Ill., bar when it shuttered its doors last year. Although the bar may have closed, its owner, known simply as Miss Claudette, still holds the contract for the duo, and continues to book shows at almost any venue that will have them.
"It's a tough situation," Iguana says by telephone from his home in Chicago. "We're trying to get gigs at the Hideout and she has us booked at the Blockbuster next month in Wicker Park."
Miss Claudette has even carved out a spot on stage next to the band where she offers drink specials and frequently interrupts the music with phone calls and deliveries.
"She's also looking into setting up her bar and having us play at places like Dunkin' Donuts and Jimmy John's because, as she says, 'they popular place,'" Iguana says of his own personal Korean-born dictator. "I'm just surprised she's even allowing us to play The Livery."
The brilliant and campy shtick, complete with Miss Claudette serving "the best Budweiser in town!" is part performance art, part musical exploration. But at its heart, the project is a vehicle for Iguana to merge his blues and rock backgrounds into one high-concept, high-energy show, which comes to the Benton Harbor brewery on Friday.
"Michael is used to just playing music so even he's still asking me about the concept," says Iguana, whose given name is Brian Berkowitz. "We present ourselves from the get-go as second fiddle. If you choose to listen and watch it's really interesting and it sounds at once antique and kind of new and fresh, but meanwhile you're being overcome by scrolling drink specials and Claudette shouting at us from the stage."
After releasing six albums and an EP with Oh My God, that band took a hiatus in 2011 for singer/bassist Billy O'Neill's year-long sailing adventure. That's when Iguana came up with the idea for The Claudettes and promptly enlisted Caskey, who joined Oh My God on its last tour and previously played Balkan gypsy jazz with the band Eastern Blok.
"I spent some time in my house messing around with some sounds on the piano and came up with something stylized after Otis Spann and S.P. Leary that was just piano and drums," Iguana says. "What came out started with some blues heads but it then went into all different territories - just gonzo nuttiness - with these Hoagy Carmichael and Irving Berlin melodrama chord changes. Sometimes when you just let the tape roll for three straight days and nights that's kind of what we ended up with."
The piano-drums format also offers Iguana a chance to reconcile his conflicting loves of Chicago blues and modern rock.
"Since I was a teenager I've been in blues bands but also punk and rock bands but I never really liked any crossover between them," Iguana says. "I wore a tie to the blues gigs and my Hüsker Dü shirt to the rock shows. But for this I didn't think there was much of a point to make it straight blues and I wanted to see if I was up to the challenge of letting all these different influences just get spit out."
Iguana, who grew up in Philadelphia, studied piano from age eight and played piano and organ in blues bands from age 16. He moved to New York City at age 22, where he met Junior Wells, who hired him in 1994 when he moved to Chicago. He toured with the Junior Wells Band for three years and played on the Grammy-nominated "Live at Buddy Guy's Legends" and "Live Around the World" albums. He's also played with icons such as Carey Bell, Koko Taylor, Lil' Ed, Eddie Shaw and others before taking a hiatus from the blues when Oh My God was formed.
"I don't even know if you can say 10 years is a hiatus," Iguana says. "I took an epoch off."
In the past few years, Iguana has returned to his blues roots as the piano player in "Chicago Blues: A Living History," a band that includes Billy Boy Arnold, John Primer and Lurrie Bell, among others. The all-star ensemble, has recorded two albums, both of which have received major blues awards. But, it seems, Iguana feels more at home playing the boogie-woogie, improvisational piano that fuels The Claudettes.
"I come up with a head arrangement for every song, but in the live show there's a lot of improvising," he says. "I'd say 45 percent is improvised."
And as for Miss Claudette herself, who is actually a Chicago area bartender, Iguana adds, "I just thought it would be entertaining. I'm really into having us interrupted right when we're feeling our best. I do think it's a real interesting listen for any kind of instrumental music, let alone just piano and drums. I think I feel more satisfied with my playing now than I ever have before."
— WHAT: The Claudettes with Half-Ton Blues Gun
— WHEN: 9 p.m. Friday
— WHERE: The Livery, 190 Fifth St., Benton Harbor
— HOW MUCH: $6
— CONTACT: 925-8760 or www.liverybrew.com