Finally… a Record by The Flat Five

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The debut album by the Flat FiveIt’s a World of Love and Hope, is a strange and wonderful thing. I doubt you’ll hear any other record this year that sounds anything like this. It feels like a throwback to some other era … but when, exactly? And what exactly is this? Bubblegum pop? Psychedelic rock? Vocal jazz? Power pop? Country? Cabaret? Lounge music? It has a little bit of all that. The vocal harmonies and varied instrumental flourishes are delightful, and the songs are utterly charming, with the catchiest of melodies and offbeat, whimsical words.

Like the best music, it doesn’t really need an explanation — just listen to it, and I bet you’ll fall in love with it. But here’s the back story: The Flat Five is a sort of supergroup within the world of Chicago alt-country and related genres. The group brings together five highly talented musicians — and it requires something like a Venn diagram to keep track of all the bands they’re connected with.

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The Flat Five also features SCOTT LIGON, a virtuoso on both guitar and keyboards, who also sings and writes music. And there’s bassist CASEY McDONOUGH, who also sings and writes. In addition to playing in the Flat Five, Ligon and and McDonough are members of the legendary rock band NRBQ’s most recent lineup.

Last but not least, there’s drummer ALEX HALL, who also sings and occasionally comes out from behind the drum kit to play accordion. In addition to his gig with the Flat Five, Hall is a member of the Fat Babies, who play big band-style jazz (including a regular gig on Tuesdays at the Green Mill). And there’s yet another band called the Western Elstons — which is usually Ligon, McDonough and Hall plus guitarist Joel Paterson. (You can see them on the first and third Wednesday of every month at Simon’s Tavern in Andersonville.)

OK, have you got all that straight? (That’s the simple version.)

Anyway, these five musicians have been playing together as the Flat Five for about a decade, as a sort of cover band. For a long while, their gigs were just an annual event. Back in 2010, I wrote a blurb for the Chicago Reader’s Best of Chicago issue naming the Flat Five as the city’s “Best Cover Band That Plays One Gig a Year.”

As I noted then:

Their repertoire stretches from “Vanishing Girl” by XTC alter ego the Dukes of Stratosphear to Hoagy Carmichael’s “Lazy Bones.” Calling them a cover band hardly does them justice … they’re writing their own definition of what a standard should be as they have a blast interpreting a genre-defying mix of folk, jazz, soul, and soft rock. Since 2007 they’ve played just three times, convening for one night each December at the Hideout. It’s a nice holiday tradition, but I’d sure like to hear those sublime harmonies more often.

In the years since then, Flat Five gigs have become a bit more frequent. (I’ve reviewed and photographed the band’s shows several times over the years.)

But Flat Five hasn’t made any records until now — the new album is out today (Oct. 14) on Chicago’s Bloodshot Records.

Now, here’s the other thing you should know to understand what this album is all about: Scott Ligon has a brother named Chris Ligon, who has made a series of independently released records filled with oddball tunes. (They’re so far underground that I can’t find a good internet link to include here.) Chris Ligon is married to the cartoonist Heather McAdams, who used to create an annual calendar packed with country music pictures and trivia. For many years, the couple sold these calendars at Chris & Heather’s Country Calendar Show, an annual shindig at FitzGerald’s that brought together a who’s who of Chicago’s alt-country musicians.

The Flat Five often sprinkles a song or two by Chris Ligon into its sets — including a hilariously scatological ditty called “Poop Ghost” — and now, the group has made an entire album of Chris Ligon covers. I interviewed Kelly Hogan and Scott Ligon in October 2014, when they were just getting started on this recording project.

I asked Scott, “Why don’t you describe what your brother is all about, musically?” And he replied: “I can’t describe what my brother is all about. I really can’t. To me, that music is completely singular. There’s just nothing like Chris Ligon. There’s nothing like what it is that he does.” That isn’t the most satisfying answer, but I can see why Scott had trouble putting in words what exactly Chris’ music is like. The songs tend to be weird and whimsical. Somehow, it sounds like his melodies and arrangements are following the usual songwriting rules while subverting them at the same time. This week, Scott wrote more about his brother’s music and their friendship in a touching and amusing Facebook post.

Knowing all of that history, I was confident the Flat Five’s record would be good, but it was hard to know exactly what to expect. The resulting album is such a pleasure to hear because it dares to be different.

If you’ve ever seen the Flat Five in concert, you know these are stellar musicians and singers who can blend their voices and instrumental parts in a way that looks and sounds effortless — though I’m sure it’s actually the end result of years of experience and work. Those skills are apparent on the record, too. Their voices flit around in the mix, joining together for delightful harmonies at key moments but also playing off one another in animated conversation.

At times, the Flat Five sounds like a jazz vocal harmony group — think the Manhattan Transfer or the Swingle Singers — or maybe a doo-wop act, singing nonsense syllables like “zip zip boom boom.” But that’s far from the entirety of what the Flat Five does. After moments that verge on novelty music — with jokey lyrics about subject matter like a bug-zapping light — the record slips into other styles. There’s a jazzy organ solo on the finger-snapping number “You’re Still Joe,” a burst of brass on the wistful country ballad “Birmingham,” and a soaring chorus on the bright rocker “Almond Grove.” And all of these elements fit seamlessly together, with smart and satisfying sonic arrangements.

The final track on It’s a World of Love and Hope is titled “It’s Been a Delight,” and it puts the focus on the Flat Five’s smooth harmonies, with all those splendid voices cooing farewell. It’s been a delight indeed.

The Flat Five plays a record release show (sold out) on Oct. 22 at the Old Town School of Folk Music, with none other than Chris Ligon as the opening act. There’s also a free show at 5:30 p.m. today (Friday, Oct. 14) at Val’s Halla Record Store, 239 Harrison St., Oak Park. And the group will be back for a concert Jan. 6 at City Winery in Chicago. Look for tour dates on the Bloodshot Records website.

Hideout 20-Year Reunion

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The Hideout, one of my favorite music venues, celebrated its 20th anniversary with a daylong mini-festival on Saturday — billed as a “20-Year Reunion.” In truth, the Hideout is much older than just two decades, as the city of Chicago’s cultural historian, Tim Samuelson, told the audience on Saturday in a short spiel about the venue’s history. He said it’s been serving alcohol since around 1919 — probably continuing as an illegal booze joint during the Prohibition Era.

But 20 years ago was when Tim Tuten and his wife, Katie, and their friends, twins Jim and Mike Hinchsliff, took over the Hideout and began transforming it into a friendly gathering place in the midst of a starkly urban landscape. (There’s a parking lot across the street filled with city garbage trucks.) In 2004, I interviewed the Tutens and the Hinchsliff brothers for a Pioneer Press feature about the Hideout. Back then, I wrote:

After eight years of running the Hideout, the owners still look on the experience like a fun adventure from their childhood days in the suburbs. “Kids used to make forts,” Tim Tuten says. “We looked at this as a fort or a clubhouse.”

That’s as true as it ever was. The Hideout is a sort of playground for musicians and their fans, and it also hosts comedy and literary events, political discussions … you name it. The genre of music most often associated with the Hideout is alt-country, but its concert schedule extends way beyond twang, including everything from experimental jazz to hard rock. And I’ve always sensed a welcoming vibe in its cozy space. Even on those rare nights when I don’t know a lot of people in the crowd, it just feels like a place where it’s easy to strike up a conversation with some of your fellow music fans.

The venue hosted an outdoor festival called the Hideout Block Party during many years, sometimes on Wabansia Street in front of the bar, sometimes taking over a bigger space in that garbage-truck parking lot. Last year, there was no Block Party. And this year’s event was pulled together somewhat belatedly. It turned out to be a smaller-scale even than the festival was in some years. There was just a small stage in front of the bar, and admission was a $20 donation. The lineup was filled with artists who have been regulars and favorites at the Hideout over the past 20 years. There was no need to bring in any additional big-name stars.

I did not see every single minute of Saturday’s party (my excuse is that I was recovering from sitting through the 15-hour Ragamala concert over the previous night). Early in the afternoon, I missed Plastic Crimewave Vision Celestial Guitarkestra, a “Late, Late Breakfast Pancake Brunch” and the Girl Talk interview show; and at the end of the night, I missed indoor performances by Devil in a Woodpile and the Lawrence Peters Outfit. But the eight hours of music I did catch were a fun time, filled with good spirit. It culminated with a lively set by Eleventh Dream Day, who closed with a cover of Lovin Spoonful’s “Summer in the City.” (See my video of the song here.)

Happy 20th birthday to the Hideout — and may you outlive all the changes that may be coming in the neighborhood. Chicago needs you.

Tim Tuten introduces Matina (Nora O’Connor, Gerald Dowd and Liam Davis)
Tim Tuten introduces Mantina (Nora O’Connor, Gerald Dowd and Liam Davis)
Matina
Mantina

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Kelly Hogan with Mantina
Kelly Hogan with Mantina
Andy Hopkins and Kelly Hogan with Mantina
Andy Hopkins and Kelly Hogan with Mantina
White Mystery
White Mystery
White Mystery
White Mystery
White Mystery
White Mystery
White Mystery
White Mystery
The Amazing Mr. Ash
The Amazing Mr. Ash
Poet Gregorio Gomez reads “The City”
Poet Gregorio Gomez reads “The City”
Nora O'Connor and Robbie Fulks
Nora O’Connor and Robbie Fulks
Robbie Fulks
Robbie Fulks
Kelly Hogan
Kelly Hogan
Andy Hopkins and Kelly Hogan
Andy Hopkins and Kelly Hogan
Tim Tuten raps about the Hideout with musical accompaniment from Mr. Rudy Day
Tim Tuten raps about the Hideout with musical accompaniment from Mr. Rudy Day
Mr. Rudy Day
Mr. Rudy Day
Chicago cultural historian Tim Samuelson, with Tim Tuten
Chicago cultural historian Tim Samuelson, with Tim Tuten
Tim Samuelson tells the history of the Hideout
Tim Samuelson tells the history of the Hideout
Jon Langford & Skull Orchard
Jon Langford & Skull Orchard

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The birthday cake
The birthday cake
JC Brooks Band
JC Brooks Band
JC Brooks Band
JC Brooks Band
Eleventh Dream Day
Eleventh Dream Day
Eleventh Dream Day
Eleventh Dream Day
Eleventh Dream Day
Eleventh Dream Day
Eleventh Dream Day
Eleventh Dream Day
Eleventh Dream Day
Eleventh Dream Day
Eleventh Dream Day
Eleventh Dream Day
Eleventh Dream Day
Eleventh Dream Day
Eleventh Dream Day
Eleventh Dream Day

The Flat Five at the Green Mill

The Flat Five — that wonderful Chicago group I’ve photographed and written about many times before — played three sets on Saturday, Aug. 27, at the Green Mill. As the band’s members observed, it may be the first time anyone has ever played a Hollies cover (“Carrie Anne”) at this venerable jazz club. But there’s a lot of jazz in what the Flat Five do, making this evening a real treat. The Flat Five’s long-awaited debut album, It’s a World of Love and Hope, comes out Oct. 14, featuring 12 songs written by Chris Ligon — the oddball songwriter who’s the brother of Flat Five member Scott Ligon. You can hear one song, “This Is Your Night,” on Soundcloud. Saturday’s show included songs from the new album as well as the Flat Five’s usual mix of obscure pop gems. Even though the group played from 8 p.m. to midnight (with a couple of breaks), it still played only a fraction of its vast repertoire.

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The Flat Five: Interviews with Scott Ligon and Kelly Hogan

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The Flat Five are a supergroup of the Chicago music scene, combining five terrific talents: Kelly Hogan, Nora O’Connor, Scott Ligon, Casey McDonough and Alex Hall. The group plays a delightfully diverse range of cover songs, and it’s working on its first album, a collection of songs written by Ligon’s brother, Chris Ligon (longtime co-host of the Chris & Heather calendar shows at FitzGerald’s with his wife, cartoonist Heather McAdams). The Flat Five is halfway through a series of four Thursday-night shows at the Hideout. You have two more chances to catch them during this residency: Nov. 13 and 20. (I included these Flat Five shows on a list of this season’s recommended pop concerts in the Nov. 3 issue of Crain’s Chicago Business.)

Last week, the group performed on the floor of the Hideout in front of the stage, focusing on quieter songs, while the audience included people sitting on the stage. After a 90-minute set, the Flat Five took a break and then came back with a jar full of songs requested by the crowd, playing some of those for the next hour and a half.

Last month, I interviewed two members of the Flat Five, Scott Ligon and Kelly Hogan. Here’s an edited transcript of those conversations, interspersed with my photos from last week’s show.

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SCOTT LIGON

Q: How would you explain the concept of the Flat Five?

A: We’re a bunch of friends that have played together over the years in different incarnations. And the Flat Five is an opportunity for us to all do things that we would otherwise never do in any other band. It gives us a chance to explore music that we couldn’t really do in any other band. But more than anything, it just gives us a chance to sing together, and that’s what we love to do.

When I first moved to Chicago, I came up here because I’d struck up a relationship with Kelly. The first time we ever sang together, we just had this magical experience. It was almost like we’re separated at birth or something. I actually have a recording of our first gig, which we only had one rehearsal for. It’s a show that my brother Chris and Heather were putting on at FitzGerald’s, and Kelly was supposed to do a short set with her friend Andy Hopkins. And Andy Hopkins wasn’t going to be able to make the show. And so she was thinking she wasn’t going to be able to make the show. And she was actually telling my brother Chris this while I was at his house. I had seen Kelly sing maybe one time, and I volunteered — I said, “Hey, you know what? I’ll do a set with Kelly.”

And we just started discussing some things on the phone, and discovered we had a lot of music in common. We got together the night before the show and sang together. And I swear, there’s no difference between the way we sang that night and the way we sing together now, over 10 years later. I have a recording of that night, and it sounds like we’d been singing together for years. So we did have this sort of magical connection right away.

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I had been thinking about moving to New York. I was living in Peoria at the time. And my connection with Kelly made up my mind about not moving to New York and sticking with Chicago. I’d been here once before. So, I came up here and immediately started doing Thursday nights with Kelly at the Hideout and working the door on other nights. We were just doing duets at the Hideout.

At some point, she said, “I have this wonderful friend Nora who’s a fantastic singer. We should have her out some night.” And Nora just came out and sat in, and it was the same thing — it was like this magic that happened the very first time that the three of us all sang together. We all knew exactly what to do, you know? We all knew what part to take on any given song, and so then we started doing a trio thing. We had been offered a gig opening for the Blind Boys of Alabama, which seemed like an odd thing for us to do. So we decided to do some — sort of the opposite side of the coin. We decided to do some white gospel and country gospel music. None of us are particularly religious, but we like a lot of music. (Laughs.) So we were doing that for a while under the name the Lamentations. We were doing that for a little while and peppering the set with just little country music and some other oddities.

While this was going on, I had been getting to know this guy, Casey McDonough — who I was discovering I also had this strange connection with, almost separated-at-birth kind of thing. We found out that we had met one another maybe 20 years earlier, when we were kids. We were in our teens and we met at BeatleFest, apparently. So we had this Beatle connection. Casey started working with me in my country and western band, the Western Elstons. And we start developing a duet style together. And I thought, “Man, he would be perfect for this thing with me and Kelly and Nora.” So, he joined that band, and then all of a sudden we had all of this music to draw from. Because Kelly and I had our list of songs that we were performing. And we had a complete selection of tunes we were doing with Nora. And Casey and I had this whole other bag that we were doing. And we just decided to put it all together in one group and not be concerned about style, but to just be concerned about substance. And so was born the Flat Five.

Q: And you had Gerald Dowd on drums originally, and now Alex Hall.

A: Yes, Gerald Dowd was with us for two or three years. We played so infrequently. There were some conflicts when Gerald couldn’t do it, so we started using Alex. Casey and Alex and myself had developed a little trio called the Letter 3. I was playing piano, and we were mostly doing jazz and rhythm and blues and stuff like that. So it seemed to make sense to bring Alex into the band. Once again, we had a whole other group’s worth of material to add to the Flat Five’s set. So, the Flat Five is comprised of maybe five different bands, actually.

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Q: How do you describe the range of music that you guys play? Is there a common thread?

A: I don’t think that musically there’s necessarily a common thread. I think the common thread is just that these songs are fantasy songs for us — songs that maybe in the past we fantasized that we wish we could do someday in a band. It gives us an opportunity. Because of the range of the band — because we’re able to cover so many different styles and we have so many singers — we are able to do things we wouldn’t be able to do in any other band. Recently we’ve been doing this song, it’s a musical version of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven,” which I heard 30 years ago on an old Buddy Morrow record called “Poe for Moderns.” It’s a big band arrangement of “The Raven,” and it’s just this really odd little song that I doubt any of my friends had ever heard, but it’s something that stuck with me for decades.

Q: When I was trying to figure out one of your set lists and I was Googling the various songs, I think that was the one that I couldn’t identify. Where did this come from? And part of the problem was that if you search for “The Raven,” you get all sorts of stuff about Edgar Allan Poe.

A: It’s wonderful to be able to stump the Internet. And we don’t do these things to be — we don’t do anything because people aren’t aware of it.

Q: You’re not being deliberately obscure?

A: No, I’m not. I don’t mean to speak for the others. To me, that’s just being cute, you know? That song really meant something to me.

Q: It’s jazzy, with a Manhattan Transfer or Swingle Singers sort of harmony.

A: The music itself is very challenging, and that’s part of what’s really fun. Because none of us are classically trained or anything like that. So, it gives us an opportunity to really stretch. It’s one thing to appreciate a piece of work that’s done in five-part harmony. It’s another thing to figure out how it’s done. And then figure out how to do it.

Q: So you guys are figuring this out by ear by hearing the records?

A: Exactly. That’s how we do everything. And none of us is a trained arranger. It’s just all for the love of the songs that we choose to perform.

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Q: I think it’s interesting how you could step into a Flat Five gig and you guys would be doing vocal harmonies on a Hoagy Carmichael song. And at that moment, I’ll think this is a concert that jazz fans or fans of the Great American Songbook would love. And then a minute later, you’re wailing on a guitar solo and it’s suddenly more of a rock concert. And five minutes after that, now you’re doing country music. I appreciate all of that. But I wonder: Are there people here who like only one of these kinds of music — and what do they think about the rest of the show?

A: You know, that’s the thing. I’m sure you’re aware of the fact that I’m currently a member of NRBQ. That band — and some other rock ’n’ roll bands in the past were unafraid to do any kind of music. The Beatles did whatever kind of music they wanted to. And nobody said, “Oh, they’re doing all these different kinds—” It was just under the umbrella of the Beatles. Now, I’m not comparing us to the Beatles or anything like that. But NRBQ works in the same tradition. Music is music, and if it moves you, it moves you, and that’s what it’s all about. It’s about being connected to the spirit of this music. Classifying, I think, is troublesome. Because I get just as much joy out of listening to an old Hoagy Carmichael record as I do listening to the Ramones. Most of my friends, most of my musical friends, they’re the same way, you know? But people think you have to do something in order to be successful, you know? If you have to present something in a certain way in order to be successful, I don’t really want to be part of it. I just want to play music because I love it. And that’s what we do. We’re unconcerned about categories.

Q: The article in the Chicago Reader several years ago portrayed you as this great musician who wasn’t putting out a lot of recordings. And I’ve often though the same thing about Nora and Kelly — at least Kelly had a record come out on Anti- last year, but it took 10 years where she was doing all kinds of stuff: touring with Neko, playing shows at the Hideout. And the Western Elstons are playing at Simon’s. So you guys are all very busy, but if I look you guys up on allmusic.com and look at your discographies, you look like you’re not doing much. For you, is the focus just doing music in a live setting? Or have the opportunities to make records just not come along as often as they do for some people?

A: I think it’s a combination of things. First of all, I’m not going to work a regular job. I’ve been making a living playing music for 20 years now, and it’s not easy. It’s not easy to keep yourself booked all the time. It’s also not easy to make a living playing music and to continue to do things that you really love to do. Now, it’s taken me some time to get to the point where I’m comfortable with all of the different projects that I’m involved in. Currently, I’m not doing anything that I don’t really enjoy. Which is a great thing. But it takes up a lot of your time. And also, I think you could also say that maybe we’re a little lazy.

Q: But you’re keeping busy playing live shows, which isn’t a sign of laziness.

A: I don’t want to speak for Kelly and the others concerning this particular topic. But you know, I’ve had some kind of strange goals in life. All I ever wanted to do was play music and enjoy it. That’s all I ever cared about. And then you come into this thing where — well, the music business, they sort of define success for you. Well, I’m not going to let anybody define my own success for me. I’m going to do things. I’ve always been very stubborn about the way I want to live my life and the way I want to spend my time. I had sort of been chasing this (NRBQ) thing around for a long time. I saw them for the first time when I was 18, and it just changed my life. I just knew that I was somehow supposed to be connected — I was connected to this group. I was busy trying to make a living in bands, but I always had this NRBQ thing hanging around in my consciousness. Twenty years of thinking about it and feeling as though I was supposed to be involved in it — 20 years later, I ended up being in the band.

Q: That’s kind of remarkable, isn’t it?

A: It is a crazy story. I mean, it really is. It literally is a dream come true. I used to have dreams, actual dreams, that I was — “Oh my God, I’m up onstage playing in this band.” Or: “Oh my God. (NRBQ leader) Terry Adams just walked into the room while I’m playing.” Just things like that. I was pretty geeked out about that band. And it did come true. And the strange thing is, it’s not like I was really actively pursuing it, but I just always had some strange feeling about it. So, like I said, who’s to define success? In my mind, I kind of got what I wanted.

In high school, I remember counselors saying — I think they all thought I wanted to be famous. They didn’t get it. All I ever cared about was just playing good music. Because I started from a really young age, and it just got in me. I just knew from the time that I was in sixth or seventh grade that this is what I’m going to be doing. And I’m very fortunate to be able to do it and to be able to pay my bills.

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Q: And now Casey has joined NRBQ, too.

A: He’s in every band that I’m in. (Laughs.)

Q: Obviously that takes up a portion of your time. But you have a pretty good balance of doing that and other things like the Flat Five and the Western Elstons?

A: It takes some doing to give each one of those things their space. But yeah, it’s all that I do. You’re constantly juggling all of these different things. And Kelly’s doing the same thing: Working with Neko and doing all of the different projects that she’s involved in. But we’ve always had this soft spot in our hearts for the Flat Five. For a time, we were doing it once year and then maybe twice a year.

Q: Was that mostly because of scheduling issues?

A: Pretty much. People were so busy. I think at the time, the Neko thing was really taking off, and Kelly is very devoted to Neko. And at the same time, the thing with NRBQ was taking off for me. So we needed that space to be able to cultivate these things.

Q: So, as you do this residency at the Hideout, you’re preparing to do an album of all covers of your brother’s songs?

A: Yeah, that’s what we’re proposing. Sort of a tribute to my brother’s music.

Q: Why don’t you describe what your brother is all about, musically?

A: I can’t describe what my brother is all about. I really can’t. To me, that music is completely singular. There’s just nothing like Chris Ligon. There’s nothing like what it is that he does.

Q: How old are you, and how old is he?

A: Well, he’s 12 years older than me. I’m 44. I grew up with his music in the house. It was great, because he always involved me in his music, from the time that he started making these weird recordings in the basement. The very first song that I ever remember him working on that he asked me to be a part of was a song called, “Your Cheeks Are Redder As Hell.” (Laughs.) And I think I might have played vacuum cleaner on that song. And he had some other really bizarre songs early on. One called, “I Guess They Call Me Butter Fingers.”

He’s a fabuloulsy original creative songwriter. He has the ability to make — he can create a song that is based on a form that is familiar. He also has the ability, I think, to create new music, which is really hard to do.

Q: You mean, new in a way that it’s different from anything else?

A: Where it’s literally not based on anything you’ve ever heard before. And that’s almost impossible. And it takes a really special person to be able to do that.

Q: If you go ahead with these plans for an album, when is that likely to happen?

A: Well, we have started. The great thing is, we’re doing this on our own time and our own money.

Q: No label involved at this point?

A: No, not at this point. So, we’re our own boss. And we’ll just do it as time allows. But it’s really exciting, because one of the things that was happening over the last couple of years was this feeling of: God, like, are we crazy? Why are we only doing this once a year? You know? It just became this thing where we’re going to be sorry if we don’t do something about this band, if we don’t document some of what we’re capable of. And you know, we really love each other. It’s a really fun thing to do. We’re hoping to be able to try to do it more often. We’ve begun doing it sort of more quarterly. Maybe four times a year instead of twice.

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 KELLY HOGAN

Q: What’s your summary of what the Flat Five is all about?

A: I was trying to explain it to my mom, because I was playing her some of our stuff we’ve been recording. I don’t know. We’re unapologetically groovy. We like it so much. It’s almost like it doesn’t matter if anybody shows up. We’re junkies, man. We just love that harmony, and, like, the harder the arrangement, the more we like it. It’s joy. All our inner-band emails, the word “joy” comes up all the time. And “groovy.” This morning, we were writing each other. I was like, “Yall, let’s just go ahead and be weird. ’Cause you know we’re already weird. Let’s be as weird as we want to be.”

Q: Is there a common thread in all of the songs that you guys do?

A: Joy? Curiosity and joy. Just trying it on. Trying on all the clothes. All the crayons. We just start throwing songs at each other. Like: “This is one I’ve always wanted to do.” And we’ll always try everybody’s baby, at least once. Some songs jibe and some don’t. Everybody brings their faves to the table.

Q: With some of these songs, are you creating three-, four- or even five-part harmonies that weren’t in the original recordings?

A: Oh, yeah, most definitely. We do that, like when we covered the Dan Wilson song, “All Kinds.” Because everybody — especially Alex, Casey and Scott — they can do everything. They play everything. Alex, our drummer, sings like a dream. So we just want to show him off. He has a nice bass voice. That’s the joy — that vibration. The harmony thing is really what’s our glue. So, why make Alex miss out? We’ll find a part for Alex. We’ve got to give him a piece of the frosting on it, too. We can’t be hoggin’ all the sugar.

Q: Scott traced the whole thing back to the first time he sang with you, as a duo. The way he remembers it, the minute he started singing with you, he could tell it was going to be a great thing having these two voices blend together — that it was very natural. Is that how you remember it?

A: It was amazing. Yeah. I know where I was sitting in my living room when we sort of looked at each other across the coffee table and were like, “Uh-huh. All right. Yeah.” Scott and I talked for, like, 10 minutes on the phone, just about what we were going to do. I got off the phone and turned to my roommate at the time and said, “Oh my God.” I looked at the set list Scott and I had made. I said, “Every band that we’re covering ends in Brothers or Sisters.” The Everly Brothers, the Davis Sisters, the Wilburn Brothers. For someone you’ve never sung with before, this is going to have to click or it’s going to be a disaster. Everything we were about to sing was super-close intuitive, blood-relation harmony. I wasn’t thinking about it when we were talking but then I was like, “Oh boy. It’s going to crash and burn.”

But then Scott came over, and as soon as we started singing together — and then, I think I mentioned Georgie Fame, and we bonded over Georgie Fame and Lou Rawls. It’s just that thing where I could start singing the first line of a song and Scott would just join in. And that’s what happens in Flat Five practices all the time. We have a hard time sometimes getting to the actual song we’re supposed to be practicing, because all of a sudden we’re doing the Guess Who. Somebody just starts humming a song, and all these guys, they just know how to do it. It’s this intuitive thing. We’re eating and sleeping and breathing music. It’s very organic.

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Q: Do you feel like you have a harmony relationship with each of the different people you sing with? When you sing with Neko, there’s one thing happening, but with you sing with Scott, there’s a different thing?

A: Oh, yeah. Definitely, definitely. There’s different ways of singing. As a harmony singer, there’s this way that you — have you ever laid tile? Where you score the putty? It’s almost like you fit into it. Like it’s a different way of scoring and texturizing your voice against somewhere else’s. And that can vary from song to song. There are different colors. What’s fun with Nora and Scott and all these guys, is we can have the whole box of crayons. We can do all different types, from country harmonizing — rough, the bluegrass types of chords and intervals — and then get to the Free Design, and it’s all (sings in bright tones), “Ba Ba Ba.” Then it’s all groovy again. We can’t say no.

Q: You went for a period where you were playing one show per year. Now it’s a little more than that. Has it just come together scheduling-wise, that you’re able to do more?

A: Yeah. Well, we’ve made more of an effort. Once Scott and Casey got with NRBQ, it was even more difficult to do even the once a year. So we’ve really made a concerted effort, because we really like it. When you play once a year and you practice, you don’t want to do the same songs all the time. But everybody’s so busy. So we’ve made a concerted effort to expand our repertoire, which already has like 85 songs in it. Then, we’ve bandied the idea of doing the Chris Ligon catalogue. Scott and I have mentioned to each other for years, and then we were like: “We need to do this. We need to do this.” So we made our plan and everybody’s made their sacrifices, schedule-wise. I mean, I have to drive in from Wisconsin, so I do a lot of couch surfing and stuff. But it’s so worth it.

Q: So for people who don’t know Chris Ligon’s music: Who is he and what’s his music all about?

A: (Laughs.) Oh my God. It’s sophisticated, weird and twisted, dark and light at the same time, you know? With that sort of wry sense of humor. I don’t know. He’s loose and tight. I don’t know. I don’t know what’s happening in there. I just can’t get enough of it. Freestyle. A feral kind of thing. But very sophisticated musicality. And like, Dr. Demento’s going to have the biggest boner. That kind of thing.

Q: What do you have planned for the last two shows of the residency at the Hideout?

A: The last week (of the Hideout residency) on the 20th, Chris and Heather are going to be our co-stars. Chris Ligon is going to do his own set, Heather is going to show films. Nov. 13 is called Flat Five and Friends. Max Crawford is going to come join us and there may or may not be an entire Beach Boys album done in order.

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Day of the Dowd

L99A0029Gerald Dowd has drummed for with a lot of different Chicago musicians over the years, rarely taking the spotlight himself. Saturday was his day, and what a remarkable feat it was. FitzGerald’s hosted daylong festival called “Day of the Dowd,” featuring 17 bands playing over the course of 13 1/2 hours. Dowd played drums for the first 16 of these bands, barely taking any breaks longer than a few minutes. And then for the finale, Dowd stepped up to the microphone with an acoustic guitar, singing and playing tuneful alt-country songs from his first album as a solo artist, Home Now.

I showed up halfway through the day, arriving in time to catch a rare performance by the great Chicago power-pop band Frisbie — which was so good that it made me hope Frisbie starts playing more shows and recording music again. The rest of an evening was a who’s who of Chicago’s alt-country and related genres. Here’s the full list of bands that played starting at 11 a.m.: Justin Roberts and the Not Ready For Naptime Players, Dave Sills, Brian Ohern’s Model Citizens Big Band, Electric Dirt, Samba Bamba, the Regulators, Nora O’Connor, the Hoyle Brothers, EXO, Dave Ramont, Frisbie, Jive Council, Kelly Hogan, Lush Budgett, Chris Mills, Robbie Fulks and Gerald Dowd and his Moral Minority.

All of these musicians gave their time to play at this event, celebrating the release of Dowd’s new album and all that he’s done for them over the years. The event also raised money for the Greater Chicago Food Depository. Some singers and musicians kept turning up on the stage, performing with various groups over the course of the marathon.

Dowd started his own set with his 14-year-old son standing next to him and playing guitar. Various other musicians joined Dowd over the course of that final hour, but then it was just him standing alone on the stage for the encore, playing a beautiful acoustic ballad from Home Now. I sensed something especially heartfelt in the applause. It was astounding to think what this man had just put himself through. He was still standing as the show ended around 12:40 a.m., remarking that he was looking forward to a day without any drumming on Sunday.

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Dave Ramont and Gerald Dowd
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Frisbie
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Frisbie

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Frisbie
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Kelly Hogan
Kelly Hogan
Kelly Hogan
Kelly Hogan
Scott Ligon (playing with Kelly Hogan)
Scott Ligon (playing with Kelly Hogan)
Lush Budgett
Lush Budgett
Chris Mills
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Chris Mills
Chris Mills
Chris Mills
Chris Mills
Kelly Hogan gives Dowd a back rub.
Kelly Hogan gives Dowd a back rub.
Robbie Fulks
Robbie Fulks
Grant Tye, Kelly Hogan and Robbie Fulks
Grant Tye, Kelly Hogan and Robbie Fulks
Gerald Dowd with his son.
Gerald Dowd with his son.

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Grant Tye, Dave Sills and Gerald Dowd

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The Flat Five at the Hideout

The Flat Five, from left: Scott Ligon, Alex Hall, Casey McDonough, Kelly Hogan and Nora O’Connor
The Flat Five, from left: Scott Ligon, Alex Hall, Casey McDonough, Kelly Hogan and Nora O’Connor

Nora O’Connor’s monthlong residency at the Hideout continued on Tuesday, Feb. 18, with a show by the band that Hideout owner Tim Tuten called the club’s very own supergroup.  It’s no longer the “Best Cover Band That Plays One Gig a Year,” but that’s just because the Flat Five have slightly increased their performance schedule.

And “cover band” isn’t really an adequate description for this quintet of masterful musicians and singers, who assemble a few times a year to  indulge in their love of finely crafted pop songs, with an emphasis on obscure gems with harmony vocals. Just peruse this week’s set list  (scroll down below the photo gallery) to get an idea of the Flat Five’s electric and impeccable musical tastes.

The Flat Five are Nora O’ConnorKelly HoganScott Ligon, Casey McDonough and Alex Hall. (Ligon, McDonough and Hall also perform in the Western Elstons, who have a regular gig at Simon’s Tavern, and on Tuesday at the Hideout, they were joined for a while onstage by another member of that band, guitarist Joel Paterson.)

During Tuesday’s marvelous Flat Five show, O’Connor remarked, “This is my favorite band in the world to be in. I feel like I’m playing and watching at the same time.”

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SET LIST

The Raven
The Party (Henry Mancini)
Treat Me Like a Lady (Lesley Gore)
Little Bell (The Dixie Cups)
Birds of a Feather (Joe South)
I Went to Sleep (The Beach Boys)
Mama Don’t Like My Man (Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings)
Caroline (Randy Newman)
Life Line (Harry Nilsson)
Poli High (Harry Nilsson)
Without Rhyme or Reason (Fran Landesman and Bob Dorough)
All Kinds (Dan Wilson)
Florida (Chris Ligon)
Kites Are Fun (The Free Design)
The Winter Is Cold (Wendy & Bonnie)
Love Is Only Sleeping (The Monkees)
No True Love (The Dixie Cups)
[set break]
Sermonette (Lambert, Hendricks & Ross)
Niki (The Third Wave)
Lil’ Darlin’ (Neal Hefti)
When I Stop Dreaming (The Louvin Brothers)
I Want Some More (Colin Blunstone)
Lazybones (Johnny Mercer and Hoagy Carmichael)
Don’t Forget to Cry (Everly Brothers)
Grey Funnel Line (Cyril Tawney)
Sad, Sad Girl and Boy (The Impressions)
Love Lotsa Lovin (Lee Dorsey)
Friends (The Beach Boys)
Tomorrow Won’t Bring the Rain (Dion)
Almond Grove (Chris Ligon)
Plastic Man (The Kinks)
That’s Alright (Fleetwood Mac)
Poop Ghost (Chris Ligon)
Let Him Run Wild (The Beach Boys)
Sunday Will Never Be the Same (Spanky & Our Gang)
Don’tcha Hear Me Callin’ To Ya (The Fifth Dimension)

Recap: The Hideout Block Party/A.V. Fest

Almost without fail, the Hideout Block Party is one of the summer’s most entertaining festivals — and that hasn’t changed over the past couple of years, when it combined with the A.V. Club’s A.V. Fest. It feels like a gathering of old friends — in the middle of an concrete-block and corrugated-metal cityscape, with a whiff of trash wafting over from all of the city garbage trucks parked nearby.

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Hideout co-owner Tim Tuen

The banner on this year’s stage, created by the great Chicago poster artist Jay Ryan, depicted garbage trucks tumbling in midair. And on Friday night, the Streets & Sanitation odors were stronger than usual. As Kelly Hogan wryly noted (during Neko Case’s concert, where she was providing her delightful-as-usual harmony vocals): “That breeze feels great even though it smells like dumpster juice.” The smell was worth putting up with because of all the great music, and thankfully, the wind was blowing in another direction on Saturday.

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Neko Case

Unfortunately, the crowd was chatty on Friday night during the sets by Case and Mavis Staples. Wandering around the parking lot, it wasn’t easy to find an area where you could hear the music clearly without being distracted by nearby conversations. As usual, the audience members closest to the stage were the most attentive, and a hush finally fell over most of the crowd when Case daringly performed  “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu,” an a cappella song from her new album, The Worse Things Get, the Harder IFight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You.  The song delivers a fairly stunning emotional impact in the studio version, and it was only heightened in the live performance. That was the highlight of the night, but the rest of Case’s set was lovely, too — such a subtle mix of tough and tender. The final song of the night was her 2002 classic “I Wish I Was the Moon,” and she performed the opening verse a cappella (or nearly so) — the same way she did the song during the Solid Sound Fest this summer. And once again, Case’s voice rang out with clarity. See more of my photos from Neko Case’s performance.

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Mavis Staples

Earlier in the evening, Mavis Staples ably demonstrated the power of her own voice. The matriarch of Chicago gospel recently had knee surgery, and she told the crowd, “This is my very first concert with the new knee. So I’m going to call this knee ‘the Hideout.'” Staples, who recorded a live album inside the Hideout, does genuinely seem to love the place, and the reception that she gets whenever she plays there. 

Staples’ voice sounded tentative during the first song, her cover of Funkadelic’s “Can You Get to That” (from her excellent new album One True Vine), but there was nothing uncertain about her vocals in the rest of the set, as she gave full-throated glory to songs new and old. Closing with the Staple Singers’ classic “I’ll Take You There,” she exhorted the audience to sing along, taunting  that the crowd’s first attempt at joining in was “weak.” See more of my photos from Mavis Staples’ performance.

Friday also featured the scrappy garage rock of Nude Beach and the acoustic jamming of Trampled by Turtles.

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Trampled by Turtles

 

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Girl Group Chicago

Saturday was a festive day in the garbage-truck parking lot. I just barely missed the opening set by the Guitarkestra (though I heard the roar of its chord in the distance as I walked up to the Hideout). I arrived in time for a fabulous set by Girl Group Chicago — five singer and 15 musicians, if I counted correctly, playing big renditions of classic girl group songs, joined onstage by the dancing gals known as the Revelettes. See more of my photos from Girl Group Chicago’s performance.

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Jon Langford and Jean Cook
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Jon Langford
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Jean Cook
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Jon Langford

It wouldn’t be a Hideout Block Party without a performance by Jon Langford, and for this one, he played with a new lineup of his Skull Orchard band, playing a new song on the timely topic of “endless war” and closing with a cover of the Faces’ “Debris.” He also played “Haunted,” the song he wrote for Kelly Hogan’s album of last year. “The royalty checks are flooding in,” he joked. “They almost match the parking tickets.”

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The Both (Aimee Mann and Ted Leo)
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The Both (Aimee Mann)
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The Both (Aimee Mann and Ted Leo)
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The Both (Aimee Mann)

Next up was the Both, a duo comprising Aimee Mann and Ted Leo. They’ve recorded an album together, and their musical styles blended with surprising ease during this set, despite some technical difficulties with the mix during the first couple of songs.

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The Walkmen
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The Walkmen
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The Walkmen

The Walkmen sounded as intense as ever during their late-afternoon set; lead singer Hamilton Leithauser was unrelenting.

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Superchunk

It was bittersweet to see Superchunk for the first time without the band’s longtime bass Laura Ballance, which is still recording with the group but has retired from touring. But Jason Narducy did a fine job of handling duties on bass, even getting into Superchunk’s bouncy, jumpy spirit. It seemed like lead singer Mac McCaughan’s feet were a few inches above the stage at just about any given moment during the show, and Superchunk was as lively and exciting as it ever was. New songs, like set opening “FOH,” sounded terrific alongside oldies like “Slack Motherfucker.” And in some comments to the crowd, McCaughan paid tribute to all of the Chicago people and institutions that helped Superchunk over the years, including the Lounge Ax, Steve Albini and Touch and Go Records. See more of my photos from Superchunk’s performance.

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The Hold Steady
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The crowd during the Hold Steady’s set
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The Hold Steady
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The Hold Steady

As darkness fell, the Hold Steady launched into a loud and raucous set. The fans along the barricade by the stage clearly loved frontman Craig Finn’s shout-singing and wild gestures. Since keyboardist Franz Nicolay left the band, its sound has been all guitars, all the time. The nonstop riffing in the first half of the set was a bit much, but when the Hold Steady dug into its back catalog for some of its catchiest choruses at the end, all was well in Hideoutville.

Saturday’s headliner was Young the Giant. Who? … OK, I had heard of this group, but I’ve just barely heard its music. And I knew plenty of other people who turned out to see Superchunk or the Hold Steady and who were largely unfamiliar with Young the Giant. Judging from the people who crowded near the stage at the end of the night, most of Young the Giant’s fans are in their late teens or early 20s. And well … to my ears, Young the Giant’s music was rather bland and generic pop rock. It paled in comparison to the other music I’d been hearing all day. But I can’t complain too much, given how much fun the whole weekend was.

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Young the Giant
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Young the Giant

Solid Sound, Part 3

Read more about Solid Sound and see more photos in Parts 1, 2 and 4

My last two blog posts about Solid Sound were about what the members of Wilco were up to during this festival. But like any decent fest, this one wasn’t entirely about one band. In brief, the other highlights included a high-energy show on Saturday afternoon by The Dream Syndicate, who were cult favorites in the 1980s California indie-rock scene. This was their first North American gig in more than two decades, but as it felt like they’d never stopped playing.

The Dream Syndicate
The Dream Syndicate
The Dream Syndicate
The Dream Syndicate
The Dream Syndicate
The Dream Syndicate
The Dream Syndicate
The Dream Syndicate
The Dream Syndicate
The Dream Syndicate

Yo La Tengo played not one, but two shows during Solid Sound. Alas, I arrived too late on Friday night to get a set at the screening of the film The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller, featuring a live score performed by Yo La Tengo. On Saturday afternoon, the group played a typically excellent set of its songs, both old and new, with the most drastic shift in dynamics I heard all weekend. After blasting a couple of noisy songs to open their concert, Yo La Tengo took the volume way, way down for a couple of its hushed, whispery ballads, “The Point of It” and “Decora” — and it seemed like everyone in the crowd stopped making any sound so they could listen in. (At least, that’s what it was like by the stage, where I was standing.) By the end of the set, the band back at full volume.

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Yo La Tengo
Yo La Tengo
Yo La Tengo
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Yo La Tengo
The MASS MoCA courtyard during Yo La Tengo's set
The MASS MoCA courtyard during Yo La Tengo’s set

Out of all the artists playing at Solid Sound, the one that seemed to represent younger, hyped bands was Foxygen. Just as they acted goofy during their recent in-store at Chicago’s Saki, Foxygen’s members seemed loopy at Solid Sound as they cavorted on the stage, playing their quirky, catchy songs. Perhaps they cavorted a bit too much. I heard most of Foxygen’s set, but I was away from the stage when lead singer Sam France reportedly tried to climb the scaffolding and got pulled down by security. Later in the day, I noticed three security guards surrounding Foxygen’s tambourine player, who looked intoxicated, and escorting him away from a tree. During Wilco’s show that night, Jeff Tweedy told the audience that the members of Foxygen had been “kicked out” of the festival. “They’re awesome. A little too awesome, I think,” he said. Later, he apologized, saying he hadn’t meant to disparage the band. But he dedicated the song “Passenger Side,” a song about drunk driving, to Foxygen. And then Tweedy brought up Foxygen one more time, suggesting that they might want to try drinking water onstage. The Reverse Direction blog has more about the Foxygen story. Whatever happened, I was charmed by what I saw of Foxygen’s set.

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Foxygen
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Foxygen

Although Low got some flack for playing one long droning song at the recent Rock the Garden festival in Minneapolis, the band played a standard set of its songs at Solid Sound on Saturday. And with Low, standard means beautiful.

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Low

Neko Case is another artist who nearly always delivers a good to great performance, and her show on Saturday night included a few songs from her forthcoming album The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You, which comes out Sept. 3 on Anti. On first impression, the new songs sounded like a strong continuation of the singular style of music Case has been shaping over her last few records. For me, the highlight of the set was a heart-stopping performance of her 2002 song “I Wish I Was the Moon,” with Case’s voice plaintively calling out across the park in the opening verse. “We’re kind of a weird band for a festival because all of songs are bummers,” Case remarked at one point. Her stalwart harmony singer, Kelly Hogan, pointed out: “Low played earlier.” At the end of her set, Case said, “Every single song in our set is dedicated to that girl playing drums on her dad’s head.”

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Neko Case
Neko Case and Kelly Hogan
Neko Case and Kelly Hogan
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Neko Case
Neko Case
Neko Case
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Neko Case
Jon Rauhouse plays during Neko Case's set
Jon Rauhouse plays during Neko Case’s set
Neko Case
Neko Case

Read more about Solid Sound and see more photos in Parts 1, 2 and 4

Hogan and Samarov at the Hideout

Kelly Hogan returned on Sunday night to the venue she calls her favorite — Chicago’s Hideout, of course. It was another outstanding performance by Hogan, featuring most of the songs on her 2012 album I Like to Keep Myself in Pain as well as No, Bobby Don’t and the Magnetic Fields’ “Papa Was a Rodeo.” Here’s my video of that song:

Hogan’s band for this gig was essentially The Flat Five, a group she performs with occasionally, although Casey McDonough and Nora O’Connor switched on their usual instruments — he played guitar while she handled bass duties — and the drummer was original Flat Five-r Gerald Dowd rather than current member Alex Hall. During the long encore, McDonough, O’Connor, Dowd Scott Ligon each took a turn at the microphone. It was like a mini-Flat Five set. (For a full one, check them out June 8 at Space in Evanston.)

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The opening act was Dmitry Samarov — the author, painter and former cabdriver, whom I profiled for the Chicago Reader in 2011. Among his many creative endeavors, Dmitry recently released a CD called Blue Light, featuring his readings of stories accompanied by improvised jazz by guitarist Bill MacKay, drummer Charles Rumback and bassist Daniel Thatcher. The four of them took the Hideout stage on Sunday and made music and stories together, with the laid-back vibe of a guy recounting stories to you in a bar. Well, I guess that’s actually what this was. You can hear the studio recordings — and buy the CD — at http://samarov.bandcamp.com. I especially enjoy the story “Charles Bronson.”

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Kelly Hogan at the Pritzker Pavilion

Millennium Park’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion opened its season of free concerts on Memorial Day (May 28) with a stellar selection: Kelly Hogan, who has an outstanding new record, I Like to Keep Myself in Pain, coming out any day now. I had the privilege of interviewing Hogan for the A.V. Club. Hogan’s all-star studio band isn’t touring with her, but she put together another crack outfit of musicians to play her new songs: Jim Elkington on guitar, Casey McDonough on bass and Joe Camarillo on drums — plus (for this gig anyway) Scott Ligon on organ and “piano situation” and Nora O’Connor on harmony vocals and guitar. But of course, Hogan herself was the center of attention, as she greeted the crowd with her irreverent banter and wowed us with her voice, whether she was belting out notes with deep strength or cooing more delicate tones.

Hogan and her band played every song from the new record, not straying too far from the studio versions but varying up the delivery and arrangements like a jazz combo comfortable with its ability to make changes on the spot. The encore began with a lovely performance of the Magnetic Fields song “Papa Was a Rodeo,” which Hogan recorded back in 2000. Ligon gently plucked Elkington’s nylon-string guitar as Hogan’s only accompaniment — until O’Connor returned to the stage midsong and took over the lead vocals on the final verse, making the tune into an endearing duet.












Monday’s opening act was Local H singer-guitarist Scott Lucas’ other band, Scott Lucas & the Married Men, who also have a new record coming out June 5, Blood Half Moon. Lucas and his band delivered a pretty fierce performance, particularly on the closing song — which also closes the new record — a dark, heavy incantation, the traditional song “There Ain’t No Grave (Gonna Hold My Body Down).” When the band stopped and Lucas kept chanting the chorus a few more times, he looked slightly possessed.


Kelly Hogan and Scott Ligon at the Hideout


Robbie Fulks took a break from his ongoing, possibly never-ending series of Monday-night concerts at the Hideout this month. Kelly Hogan and Scott Ligon took over the spot in March. This Monday (March 28), they wrapped up their monthlong series of performances with a wonderful, intimate concert, featuring some of the songs Hogan plans to include on a new album.

Yes, a new Kelly Hogan album! It’s been way too long since the last one. And Hogan, who’s always been more of a song interpreter than a songwriter, is getting help from some great musical friends. Hogan and Ligon played several songs — some of them for the first time — that other songwriters gave her for possible inclusion on the new record: “Open Mind” by Jeff Tweedy, “I Like to Keep Myself in Pain” by Robyn Hitchcock, “Haunted” by Jon Langford, “Daddy’s Little Girl” by M. Ward, “We Can’t Have Nice Things” by Andrew Bird (with words by Jack Pendarvis) and “The Green Willow Valley” by the Handsome Family.

The set also included covers of songs by Les Paul and Mary Ford, the Louvin Brothers, the Magnetic Fields, Robbie Fulks, Catherine Irwin, the Everly Brothers, Vic Chesnutt, the Free Design and the Monkees. Scott Ligon played a new song he co-wrote with Terry Adams of NRBQ and his brother Chris Ligon’s hilarious scatological ditty “Poop Ghost.” And there was a wonderful rendition of Glenn Campbell’s old hit “Wichita Lineman.”

Hogan said Ligon is her “enabler,” helping her and encouraging her to make the new record. If the album captures the beautiful sound of their live performance, it will be a keeper.

UPDATE: Here’s some more info on the songs from Ms. Hogan herself. She tells me: “The Catherine Irwin song ‘Dusty Groove’ is also for the record, as is the Mag Fields ‘Plant White Roses’ and Vic Chesnutt’s amazing song ‘Ways of This World’ and Fulks’ awesomely creepy ‘Whenever You’re Out of My Sight.’ I think we did ten of the twelve album songs last night (didn’t get to the Edith Frost and John Wesley Harding ones — dang! we’ve played those every one of the other Mondays though…) I’ll be back in Chicago doing overdubs this summer and hope to squeeze in a few H/O shows then too.”

The Flat Five? It Must Be December


Earlier this year, I contributed a short article to the Chicago Reader’s “Best of Chicago” issue about The Flat Five, naming this local group the “Best Cover Band That Plays One Gig a Year.” At least, that has been this group’s performance pattern since mid-2007. Each December, this super group of singers and players convene for one night of performances at the Hideout. This year, that blessed night arrived on Friday (Dec. 10), with two sets at the Hideout. But as it happens, the Flat Five are going to play at least one more show this winter, Jan. 7 at Evanston Space. As I wrote in the Reader, it sure would be nice if that Flat Five played more often.

Who are the Flat Five? Even if you don’t know the band name, you may recognize the names of some of the members: Kelly Hogan, Nora O’Connor, Scott Ligon, K.C. McDonough and Gerald Dowd. For these gigs, Alex Hall ably filled in for Dowd on drums, adding some accordion, too. (Dowd is on tour, so he wasn’t available.) While they all have ties to the alt-country scene, what they do in the Flat Five is more like a combination of supper-club cabaret with rock cover band. Beautiful harmonies and a quirky, smart selection of songs originally written by people such as Harry Nilsson, the Beach Boys, the Free Design, Spanky and Our Gang, XTC alter-ego the Dukes of Stratosphear, the Zombies and Bobby Hebb. (Plus a few songs by Scott Ligon’s brother, Chris Ligon.) The Flat Five practiced a repertoire of about 45 songs this time, and they spread out quite a few of those over the two sets Friday night, with just a few repeats.

As in past years, it was a true delight to hear these voices joining together on songs such as “Sundays Will Never Be the Same,” “Kites Are Fun” and “This Will Be Our Year.” And how many other “cover bands” do a “four-fer” of songs by Nilsson? There was rock, jazz, ballads, country, even a little bit of gospel. And it sounded glorious.

PHOTOS OF THE FLAT FIVE












VIDEOS OF THE FLAT FIVE

The ‘Joe Show’ at the Hideout

Yet another benefit for a musician without health insurance. Yet another reminder of what an awful system (or lack of system) we have in the United States for making sure everyone gets the health care they deserve. This time, it was Waco Brothers drummer Joe Camarillo, who was recently injured in a car accident.While Camarillo recuperates, some of his musical pals teamed up for a benefit show at the Hideout. I missed the headlining final set of the night by the Wacos (I can only blame sleepiness for my early departure), but caught three wonderful performances.

First up was Scott Ligon, accompanied by Kelly Hogan and Nora O’Connor. They’d recently played a series of shows at Davenports, a venue for cabaret music. Now, this is an interesting development, because I’ve been thinking for a while that the music of Hogan and Ligon would appeal to a lot of people outside the “alt-country” niche. People who like Norah Jones, vocal jazz or plain old Great American Songbook music would find a lot to like in the songs they’re doing, both originals and interpretations of classics and obscurities. When Hogan made those live recordings at the Hideout a while back (whatever happened to that album???), I thought the jazz critics should have been there to hear it. Anyway, at tonight’s gig, Ligon was the ringleader, playing some really, really nice originals, side by side with songs by Brian Wilson and Hoagy Carmichael, with Hogan and O’Connor adding truly beautiful harmonies.

Most of the same musicians stayed onstage for the next set, by O’Connor — more vocal beauty was in store. It just made me long for her to put out another album. She became a mom recently, so parenthood may be her priority for the moment, but I’d love to hear another recording from her.

Next up was yet another Jon Langford band/project. Does this guy ever go to sleep? This latest venture is a duo called the KatJon Band — Langford plus drummer Katrin Bornfeld of the Dutch band The Ex. I’m not familiar with the music of The Ex, but this set certainly got me interested. Kat’s an amazing drummer, playing lively and complex rhythms that sounded almost like a marching band at times. She played with a calm demeanor as if she were barely exerting herself, often breaking out into a smile or smirk. Her drumming brought out some sides of Langford’s guitar playing that I haven’t heard too much recently — more aggressive and edgy than the typical rhythm guitar he plays with most of his other bands of late. They played an interesting set of music, including songs by the Mekons, Ex and Three Johns, plus a George Jones cover. It was one of the best Langford performances I’ve seen in the last few years.

SEE PHOTOS FROM THE CONCERT.

Scott Miller and Kelly Hogan at Schubas

APRIL 26, 2006
SCHUBAS, CHICAGO

Hogan (and that is how she prefers to be called, for some reason — last name only) was in a countrier than usual mood tonight, playing some tasty and twangy covers of obscure Nashville songs as well as a few of her originals. Less jazzy than she has been in recent years. Either style is fine with me. I just want to know: WHEN ARE YOU GOING TO PUT OUT ANOTHER ALBUM???? WE NEED IT!!!

SEE PHOTOS OF KELLY HOGAN.

Scott Miller is one of the nicest and funniest musicians I’ve interviewed, with a cool combination of rural Southern frankness and a sharp intellect. He’s also quite a good songwriter, though I have to admit I haven’t kept up on his music lately. (My copy of his Inside/Outside disc was stolen from my car a couple of years ago, and I haven’t gotten around to replacing it… And I just picked up his new CD at this show.) I played his old album Thus Always to Tyrants in preperation for this show and found myself thinking, “Home come I don’t listen to this more often?” The show featured several songs from that disc, which sounded great, especially the should-be-a-classic “Is There Room on the Cross for Me.” A couple of songs Miller played solo acoustic sounded good, too. The new songs I was not so familiar with… They seemed fine, but I’ll need to hear them on disc before I decide how they hold up. Some nice covers, including Neil Young’s “Hawks and Doves.”

SEE PHOTOS OF SCOTT MILLER AND THE COMMONWEALTH.