My photos of the final three shows in Robbie Fulks’ seven-year-long series of Monday-night concerts at the Hideout. (Read my blog post about the finale of Fulks’ epic residency.)
The debut album by the Flat Five, It’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.
There’s KELLY HOGAN, a terrific singer who is Neko Case’s regular harmony vocalist — and a great solo artist in her own right. In the Flat Five, she sings alongside another outstanding vocalist, NORA O’CONNOR — who played guitar in the Blacks, released one excellent solo album, and has performed with artists including Andrew Bird and Iron & Wine. Hogan and O’Connor have both sung with Mavis Staples and the Decemberists.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’Connor, Kelly Hogan, Scott 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.”
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)
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)
One of Chicago’s best singers, Nora O’Connor, is performing every Tuesday night in February at the Hideout. Despite being a regular at the Hideout and collaborating with many other musicians, including Andrew Bird and Robbie Fulks, she’s had only one solo album — the delightful Til the Dawn, released a decade ago by Bloodshot Records — and she doesn’t headline all that many gigs that are billed as Nora O’Connor shows.
O’Connor kicked off her month of shows on Feb. 4 with an intimate set, performed in front of one microphone in the Hideout’s front room. This show as originally billed as the return of Cantina, her old duo with Matt Weber, but he was unable to make it, so it ended up being more of a solo Nora set, with accompaniment from Casey McDonough and Gerald Dowd — plus Hideout sound man Ryan Hembrey, who jumped in on bass guitar for a few songs from Til the Dawn. They called themselves Mantina. And on Facebook, Dowd said they were “a soft-rock trio juggernaut.”
You have three more chances to see Nora O’Connor this month at the Hideout. On Feb. 11, she’ll lead a band in performing the entirety of the 1973 album Buckingham/Nicks. On Feb. 18, she’ll perform as part of the Flat Five. And on Feb. 25, she’ll play as part of Precious Blood, her new band with Danny Black and Kevin McDonough. Here’s Jay Ryan’s poster for the series:
Robbie Fulks, one of Chicago’s most talented and most entertaining musicians, is playing at the Hideout every Monday night in February. After missing week one of Fulks’ residency, I caught his performance last night, an evening of lovely duets with another terrific Chicago singer, Nora O’Connor. The two sat on chairs and played acoustic guitars, with Fulks’ fingers plucking fast runs of bluegrass notes while O’Connor played rhythm chords. O’Connor’s no slouch on guitar, as evidenced by her playing in the Blacks, but she was modest about her abilities Monday. At one point, when Fulks said, “Take it, Nora!” she responded with a sarcastic, “Please!“
Fulks and O’Connor played some old-timey bluegrass and gospel tunes, such as “The Lost Indian” and Flatt and Scrugg’s “Take Me in Your Lifeboat.” Of course, they played some of their own songs as well — a couple of recent Fulks songs and a couple of oldies, plus some of the best tracks off O’Connor’s excellent (and thus far only) solo record, 2004’s Til the Dawn. And some cool covers: Fulks taking the lead on George Jones’ “The Flame In My Heart,” and O’Connor singing M. Ward’s “Helicopter,” Fleetwood Mac’s “That’s Alright” and Ketty Lester’s “Love Letters.” In between songs, Fulks was as funny as ever with his stage banter.
As Fulks remarked, how can you go wrong with two people playing acoustic guitars and singing? Well, actually, that sort of thing can go wrong, but that’s not likely to happen with these two. Each of them made the other’s songs feel more complete.
Fulks continues his Hideout residency on Feb. 15 with a string trio. On Feb. 22, he’ll have his full band playing with him. The shows start at 7 p.m., and the suggested donation for admission is $10. www.hideoutchicago.com www.robbiefulks.com
Recapping a few shows from the past week…
The Sadies were back in town Thursday (Dec. 4) for a show at Schubas, kicking off a tour with the estimable Tim Easton as opening act. The Sadies don’t have a new record out (not since releasing my favorite album of 2007, New Seasons), so we didn’t get any new songs, but there were plenty of great old tunes – something like 30, I think, if you include all those short instrumentals they ripped through. As always, the Good brothers were simply amazing on their guitars, and I took special notice this time that Travis was playing without any effects pedals at all, and Dallas had just a couple of rudimentary pedals. Further proof that you don’t need a lot of special effects to make the guitar sing. Highlights included covers of “A House is Not a Hotel” by Love and “Shake Some Action” by the Flaming Groovies. Easton put on a good show, too, playing solo acoustic (over chatty crowd noise) and mentioning that he has an album coming out in the spring with more of a rock sound.
Friday night (Dec. 5) marked the return of the Flat Five, a sort of local super group combining the talents of Kelly Hogan, Nora O’Connor, Scott Ligon, KC McDonough and Gerald Dowd in an idiosyncratic cover band. Well, it’s mostly covers. They play a few originals, but it’s largely old pop, country, jazz, psychedelic and standard songs they clearly love. Their voices blend into truly lovely harmonies, and they have a knack for picking the sort of terrific tunes that a die-hard record collector loves. I stayed for both the early and late shows at the Hideout, and heard them doing everything from Spanky & Our Gang to the Dukes of Stratosphear, Rutles and Hoagy Carmichael. These are some special musicians who rarely put our records. You really have to catch them live to see what they’re all about.
I was back at the Hideout on Sunday (Dec. 7) for a show benefitting Goldie’s Place, an organization that helps the homeless get jobs. The show featured Jon Langford playing solo, followed by Eleventh Dream Day, and Eleventh Dream Day combining with Langford and Sally Timms for several Mekons and Three Johns songs. It was a lively affair, with a couple of strong new songs by Eleventh Dream Day (new album coming soon, guys? Let’s hope…), sloppy but fun renditions of those barely rehearsed Mekons songs and tighter performances of the Three Johns songs. All for a good cause.
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.
MAY 10, 2005
Her music was just as lovely as she was…
See more pictures… plus a few shots of the excellent opener, Nora O’Connor.