It’s a typical Monday evening at the Iridium at 51st and Broadway in Manhattan. An 18-piece big band is being led by a man in a huge top hat, white gloves and black cape. The music they’re playing is a raucous, cleverly arranged mashup of songs from the ’60s and early ’70s, mostly of the progressive-rock variety. Moody Blues hits collide with items from Frank Zappa’s back catalog. Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s “Bitches Crystal” briefly pays a visit to Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints” before morphing into King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man,” complete with horn parts reminiscent of a five-car pileup. A woman glides onstage to sing a campy version of the Vikki Carr hit “It Must Be Him.” She’s announced as being Vikki Carr herself; she isn’t. Later she reappears, wearing ghoulish face makeup, to dramatically declaim Arthur Brown’s “Fire” (this time she’s announced as “the ghost of Vikki Carr”). Toward night’s end, the band lays into a bullish rendition of the Beatles’ “Yer Blues,” with new lyrics that begin, “I hear tuba/Wanna die.”
OK, truth be told, this isn’t an entirely typical Monday evening at the Iridium. The guy in the cape—Ed Palermo—doesn’t always dress like this, and the band—the Ed Palermo Big Band—doesn’t normally lean so much on British prog-based repertoire. Tonight is a special night, the release party for the ensemble’s latest album, The Great Un-American Songbook: Volumes I & II (Cuneiform), which focuses on material by most of the artists mentioned above, along with the Rolling Stones, Cream, the Move, Jethro Tull, Procol Harum, even Blodwyn Pig. Still, in spirit, this show is entirely representative of what Palermo’s been staging in this midtown basement for the past decade: a goofily humorous tribute to his record collection that also doubles as a showcase for his formidable skills as an arranger.