Kelly Hogan – Abbey Pub (Chicago, IL)
They were playing an Irish pub, and as the night wore down, the singer told the crowd that she knew a traditional Irish ballad. A simple a cappella piece, she’d learned it from a Dolores Keane record. The crowd cheered and shouted, so she agreed to sing it.
She clasped her hands, stepped forward to more cheers. Some folks turned to the shouters and hushed them.
“Oh, no,” she said, drawing back. “You don’t have to be quiet.”
To Kelly Hogan, songs are not museum pieces. She makes music for butt-shaking and beer drinking as much as for soul-baring and slow dancing.
Though an excellent survey of her silky, sassy brand of country-soul, Hogan’s most recent disc (Beneath The Country Underdog) slights that fiery side. Not so her live performance, the success of which is best measured on the dance floor.
By that standard, this show was a smash. Hogan and her band (guitarist Andy Hopkins, drummer Mike Bulington and bass-thumper Mike Sturgis, plus ringer Andrew Bird on violin and electric mandolin) set folks to spinning, swinging, waltzing and two-stepping. Words fail to aptly describe the sight of a roomful of very average dancers, their awkwardness heightened and inhibitions obliterated by drink and groove, getting gleefully funky to a rowdy cover of Curtis Mayfield’s “Do It Again”.
But don’t confuse Hogan’s distaste for solemn showgoers with musicological apathy. She’s an encyclopedic song nut with a jukebox-like command of a half-century of American popular music, and this night she covered Mayfield, Burt Bacharach, Bob Wills, Will Oldham, Fred Neil, Stephin Merritt, and Johnny Paycheck (twice). And more, all in a voice so big, so cool and so smooth, you could lie down in it and sleep a week.
She also sang a handful of her own songs, including a particularly strong pair slated for her next record: “Sugar Bowl” is a blustery ballad riddled with racy metaphors; “No Bobby Don’t” is a melodrama whose bad-boy protagonist is, Hogan says, an amalgam of her ex-husband and Rizzo from Grease.
And that Irish ballad? With careful diction and a clean, swelling tone, she sang it both fragile and strong. It was the only sound in the room.