When Johnny Iguana takes a stroll down a piano keyboard, all manner of critters jump up to greet him. Although rooted in blues, Iguana has a wild streak that sends him romping off into the woods to frolic with beasties who don't normally associate with one anther in nature. But normal is an abstract concept for Iguana, whose avant-garde 88-key meanderings have been the foundation of his band The Claudettes since their inception.
A Korean bar owner named Claudette in Oglesby, Ill., hired blues pianist Johnny Iguana (Junior Wells Band, Otis Rush), who then hooked up with avant-garde percussionist Michael Caskey (John Sinclair, Chuck Mangione). When she lost her lease in 2011, Claudette took the duo out for road trips, leasing them out to other bars with the stipulation that she came with the package. Bringing her own portable bar along, she assumed the role of the band's original alleged vocalist, shouting out drink specials during the duo's instrumental set.
The Claudettes added some zip to standards such as “California Here I Come” and Irving Berlin's “There's No Business Like Show Business” with some rip-roaring barrel house piano pounding that sent styles and tempos tumbling willy-nilly, shaking the structures nearly to the point of collapse. Iguana's own eccentric compositions such as “Hammer and Tickle” and “Land of Precisely Three Dances” also threw so many change-ups across the plate that any conventional hitter would have fled in terror from the onslaught. But Caskey hung on, and the group, now with bassist/guitarist/singer Zach Verdoorn and singer Brit Ulseth are throwing out curve balls for the masses on an irregular basis.
So what's Muddy Waters sideman and blues elder statesman Bob Margolin doing in this company? For this solo outing, Iguana reverted to his blues roots, reaching back to the lessons he learned from the three years he spent in Junior Wells Band, and subsequent work with Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, James Cotton, Billy Boy Arnold and other blues greats to pay homage to Chicago blues piano players. Recruiting Billy Boy Arnold, Lil' Ed, John Primer, Phillip-Michael Scales, Bill Dickens and Margolin, Iguana has created a world-class tribute to Chicago movers and shakers.
“He's an old friend for the past 15 years or so,” Margolin says of Iguana, whom he's worked with on records and tours over the years. “He doesn't limit himself to a genre. He's got a wide range of imagination.”
Iguana thinks highly of Margolin as well. “He's such good people, man. The Claudettes had one of our favorite shows on this tour where we played with him in Estonia. We played first, then he asked me to come up. I played a third of his set with him, and it was just so beautiful.” The Claudettes and Margolin had another date together in Colorado this month but the pandemic washed it away.
So when Iguana decided to cut Roosevelt Sykes' “44 Blues,” Margolin got the nod.
“He chose the song. It's a blues song, and I play blues guitar, and I tried to play something that would be appropriate to the music that he made, as well as perhaps give a little shout out to the original," Margolin says.
It's a real butt-kicker, with Primer belting out the macho gun-totin' lyrics like the baddest man in the alley, while Iguana runs around dodging bullets, returning fire, and Margolin stalks him relentlessly, sneaking in kill shots.
“He was the only musician on the record who wasn't bodily there in the studio,” Iguana says. “We liked the idea of having Bob on the record, and we could hear in our heads that he would be really great on that tune.”
Margolin says the version he knows comes not from his former boss, but from his chief competitor. “The one I had in mind really, the version that I know the most is the Howling Wolf version, sung in an amazing Wolf voice.”
Iguana says he was thinking of the piano-forward version by Memphis Slim, but he understands why Muddy never attempted to cover it. “Maybe Muddy and Wolf were sneering at each other so much from across the scene, maybe that was Wolf's song so maybe Muddy didn't wanna touch it,” Iguana says. “He was such a songwriter anyway, maybe he didn't need to.”
But Wolf gets his comeback on “Down in the Bottom.” His 1961 version with Primer's vocals and guitar soaring above and around Iguana's menacing big foot stomp stalking him.
Lil' Ed steps in on vocals and guitar on Elmore James' “Shake your Money Maker,” knocking down windows and tearing down doors, Iguana chasing him around the room flinging red hot riffs at him.
“Land of Precisely Three Dances” is an opportunity for Iguana to whip in and out of genres and tempos at breakneck speed. “That song has three different sections where the rhythm changes in it, and they're all pretty groovy, so that's why I originally called it 'Land of Precisely Three Dances.' ”
But the effort cost him physically. “I'm playing this 100-year-old, really beat-up piano, and some of the stuff I'm doing is really kind of high wire act stuff, and that piano didn't really wanna wake up that much.” The cover shot shows his bloody hand, acquired during an attempted glissando, an up-and-down hand wipe that didn't come off as planned. “The keys were so stiff it didn't even make a sound. It just took the skin off my finger.”
Iguana's release, “Johnny Iguana's Chicago Spectacular,” is out now on Delmark records.
Margolin is working on one of his own as well. “I never had music come to me so easy,” Margolin says of his upcoming EP, “Star of Stage and Screen,” out mid-October on his Vizztone label. “There's an obvious subject, it's like an elephant in the room.”
Margolin has a video ready for one of the new songs, “March 2020 In Stop Time,” a pandemic chronicle which he admits is bit dark, but promises there are songs that are more fun on the new release.
“I made an EP that was a follow-up to the all-acoustic album I did last year which did nicely for me and got me a BMA (Blues Music Awards) for best acoustic album last year.”
The singer/guitarist says he pursued more of the acoustic side because he was enjoying it a lot.
“I did a concert in Greensboro for The Fiddle and Bow Society that sold out. It was a lot of fun, and I was looking forward to doing a lot more of those.”
Contact Grant Britt at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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