When it came time for Kelly Hogan to record her new solo album last year, she had no trouble calling in several well-placed chips. All she had to do was go down her Contacts list (Rolodexes are soooo 1970!) of all the people who she’s worked with over the last several years, to come up with a veritable who’s who of indie-rock and alt-country artists, ready, willing and able to contribute to her project. Robyn Hitchcock provided the title track, “I Like To Keep Myself In Pain;” Andrew Bird and Jack Pendarvis collaborated long-distance to create “We Can’t Have Nice Things;” and old friends and cohorts M. Ward, Jon Langford, Stephen Merritt (The Magnetic Fields), and Jon Wesley Harding, among others, all provided compositions. With an all-star band, featuring Booker T. Jones, Scott Ligon (lately of NRBQ), Gabriel Roth (Dap Kings) and veteran drummer James Gadson, it’s no surprise that the resulting CD made several Best Of 2012 lists.
No such luminaries joined Kelly on her recent visit to The Turf Club, on a cold, January night, but the trio of veteran Chicago musicians forming her backup band – Nora O’Connor (bass – and a Bloodshot recording artist in her own right), Casey McDonough (guitar) and Gerald Bell (drums) – provided outstanding, understated accompaniment and sweet, pure vocal harmonies all night. Indeed, the only thing lacking was Booker T’s swirling Hammond B-3 organ, which was particularly missed on songs like “We Can’t Have Nice Things,”and “Haunted,” where no amount of furious strumming nor 4-part harmonizing would fill in the gap.
But, that’s a minor quibble against an otherwise outstanding night of music. Opening with the country-flavored title track to the new CD, Ms. Hogan kept the volume level low with “Nice Things,” before stepping up the pace with the self-penned “Golden.” Introducing the latter, Kelly noted that she’d written the song, “for my friend, Neko Case, who was having a really shitty day.” The lyrical admonition to “Go on, show them what you’re made of!” no doubt resonated well with her long-time musical cohort.
It was interesting to observe the difference in demeanor between the singing Kelly Hogan and the between-songs Kelly Hogan. Although loose and fun-loving throughout, when singing, she seemed to enter the “zone” that artists and athletes speak about, with her gaze fixed on the ceiling or over the heads of the audience, thoroughly engrossed in the music. Between songs, she was a bundle of nervous energy, fidgeting with her hair, chatting with her bandmates, and free-associating with the audience. Relax, Kelly! You’re clearly among friends. Even during the slower, melancholy numbers (of which there were several), the normally boisterous Turf Club crowd kept the murmuring to a low volume. Some fans delivered song requests on napkins to the front of the stage and one fellow even presented Kelly with a bag of fresh eggs (?). A puzzler, that one, but Kelly loved it.
After reaching back to her last previous solo album, 2001’s “Because It Feel Good,” for the uptempo “No, Bobby Don’t,” Ms. Hogan subdued the mood again with the sad, hushed torch song, “Daddy’s Little Girl.” Delivering the opening lyric (“My name is Frank Sinatra”) in a voice barely above a whisper, Kelly built up the volume gradually with her crystal-clear, perfect-pitch voice, without ever losing the song’s emotional punch. Somebody hand me a Kleenex.
Still favoring the melancholy, Ms. Hogan introduced “Plant White Roses,” as “the saddest song about gardening ever written.” Her voice cracked slightly at the end of Vic Chesnutt’s “Ways Of The World,” reaching for a high note, whether from emotion or simply the dry January air in Minnesota. Either way, it was effective. She picked up the pace somewhat with The Handsome Family’s lilting “Come Back To The Valley” featuring beautiful, subdued harmonizing and accompaniment from the rest of the band. Showing that she could afford to be choosy with her selections for the new CD, Ms. Hogan then sang one that didn’t make the cut, Jeff Tweedy’s “Open Mind.”
But, it was getting later in the evening and it was time to pick up the pace, starting with the finger-snapping “Sleeper Awake,” followed by “my favorite love song,” “Papa Was A Rodeo,” from her 2000 solo release, “Beneath The Country Underdog.” “Haunted” benefited from a rousing intro, somewhat offsetting the absence of the B-3 organ track on the recorded version. Then, it was time for a guest appearance by John Munson, former bass player/singer for Semisonic and its much-loved local predecessor, Trip Shakespeare, currently a member of The New Standards. Munson towered over everyone else on stage, and, still wearing his immense, furry parka, he drew comparisons to a certain legenday Northwoods lumberjack, causing Ms. Hogan to quip, “Where’s your ox?” Best line of the night, hands down!
Ms. Hogan professed to being a big Trip Shakespeare fan during her years growing up in Georgia, and she and the band did a credible version of one of TS’s better known tunes, “Snow Day,” with Nora O’Connor ably handling the opening verse.
The set closed with a Kenny Rankin tune, “Do It In The Name Of Love,” featuring some tasty brushwork by Mr. Bell, and a sweet guitar solo by Mr. McDonough, to go along with Ms. Hogan’s beautiful jazz phrasing. “Pass On By,” finished off the set before the three-song encore set, beginning with the quiet, acoustic “Vanishing Girl.” Reverting back to her usual role as the consummate backup singer, Ms. Hogan switched places with Ms. O’Connor, giving Nora the spotlight for a country-flavored song that I believe was called “Leaving You Has Been On My Mind.” And, reversing its order from the CD, Kelly Hogan sent us off into the cold January night with the low-key opening track, “Dusty Groove.”
Very likely, the next time Ms. Hogan will grace us with her presence will be in her more familiar role, singing backup for the likes of Neko Case, Andrew Bird, The Mekons, or any of the many artists with whom she’s collaborated over the years. As such, it was a rare and pleasant treat to see her step out front and assume the role of headliner. Here’s hoping it won’t be another decade between solo albums; in the meantime, start sending her your compositions, all you hot-shot songwriters out there, lest you fail to make the cut the next time around.