In Woody Allen's tragicomic masterpiece Sweet and Lowdown, Sean Penn's character, Emmet Ray, constantly compares himself to, but never emerges from the shadow of, Django Reinhardt. It's doubtful that guitarist John Sandlin, of the Albuquerque combo Le Chat Lunatique, is destined to a similar fate.
Sandlin (with matinee-idol good looks and nylon-string pyrotechnics) is obviously steeped in the gorgeous gypsy-swing pioneered in the 1930s by the Belgian master Reinhardt, but he also proved himself a versatile player, with a style all his own, when his band headlined an immensely satisfying concert last Friday night at Club Congress.
Two local acts preceded Le Chat to the stage. After hearing tidbits of the duo Pearl Handled Pistol's twangy cabaret sound on MySpace, I was sad to miss them in the opening slot. But, as a 40-something wage slave, I found it necessary to steal a nap to make it to the end of the night.
I arrived in time to witness the always-inventive Molehill Orkestrah's robust performance of (mostly) dance numbers derived from Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, klezmer and gypsy sources. Anchored as usual by Mona Chambers' soulful cello melodies and Chris Kallini's dynamic drumming, the music inspired enthusiastic bouts of dancing from the audience, with participants channeling bellydancers, snake charmers and Russian Cossacks.
Unfortunately, some of Molehill's fans wandered away during the 80-minute set by Le Chat Lunatique. Eh, their loss.
Even spiffier than the unsigned quartet's vintage suits, pencil moustaches and fedoras was the music, a combination that included rowdy jump blues and Western swing, Sephardic marches and Latinized waltzes, Celtic breakdowns and French romanticism.
Violinist Muni Kulasinghe played Stéphane Grappelli to Sandlin's Reinhardt, and bassist Jared Putnam wailed a couple of tunes, including the Bob Wills-style "Millionairess" and a version of Cab Calloway's "Minnie the Moocher" that didn't sound as if it had just been removed from mothballs. Most charming was Sandlin's arrangement of Erik Satie's haunting "Gnossienne No. 1," which evolved from its stark, minimalist opening to embrace a reggae-tinged syncopation. Sly and righteously swinging takes on "The House of the Rising Sun" and Paula Abdul's "Straight Up" helped provide entry points for the diverse listeners in the house. Content neither to be a novelty act (Squirrel Nut Zippers, anyone?) nor staid revivalists, Le Chat Lunatique proved they can rock the "hot club" while playing it cool.