This past weekend was filled with noteworthy live music, as you can see from my previous blog entries about Chris & Heather’s Country Calendar Show, Syl Johnson, Renaldo Domino and Expo 76, and Foxygen and Angel Olsen. And then on Monday came another fabulous evening of Robbie Fulks at the Hideout, this time featuring Kelly Hogan.
But perhaps the best performance of the whole weekend was a set on Sunday night by the Cairo Gang, in front of a small but appreciative audience at the Burlington. The Cairo Gang is the stage name of virtuoso multi-instrumentalist and singer-songwriter Emmet Kelly, who shows up in Chicago clubs over and over again playing with various bands. Most famously, he’s been a sideman to Bonnie “Prince” Billy in recent years. On the wonderful album Wonder Show of the World, the Cairo Gang (aka Kelly) wrote the music while Bonnie “Prince” Billy (aka Will Oldham) wrote the lyrics. Kelly has also played with Angel Olsen, Joshua Abrams and David Vandervelde, just to name a few.
Under his Cairo Gang moniker, he recently released an exceptional record called The Corner Man, which makes it clear how much he and Oldham have influenced each other. In its quiet, acoustic moments, the album is reminiscent of the work Kelly has done with Bonnie “Prince” Billy, with delicate, subtle vocals carrying artfully constructed melodies. But as Time Out Chicago noted last week in an article about Kelly, the live version of the Cairo Gang is turning into something more like a band than a solo act. The lineup that played Sunday at the Burlington includes Ryan Weinstein (of the band Coffin Pricks) on bass, Sam Wagster (of the Father Costume) on guitar and Ben Babbitt (of This Is Cinema) on drums.
At the Burlington, the Cairo Gang was loud and intense, but no less subtle than the studio recordings. Some of Kelly’s quiet moments on record were transformed into dramatic, even epic rock. In the midst of the set, the band played two terrific back-to-back covers: the Mekons’ “Hello Cruel World” followed by Nick Cave’s “Shivers.” [Correction: Oops, that’s actually a song written by Roland S. Howard and originally recorded by The Boys Next Door before they became The Birthday Party; Cave was a member of the band but not the writer of that song. The song is also covered by The Divine Fits on their 2012 debut.] The gang ended their show after midnight with the most hushed song of the night, but that one, too, built to a thrilling climax. There were 30 or so people in the room, including several faces I recognized from other bands. An enthusiastic couple near the front didn’t even know who they were watching, demanding at the end of the set: “Say your name again!” The Cairo Gang. Remember that name.
The Cairo Gang’s The Corner Man is available from Empty Cellar Records; and the whole album can be streamed on bandcamp.