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Monday, Jan. 28, 2013

Kelly Hogan @ Cactus Club

Jan. 26, 2013

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Those familiar with Kelly Hogan will undoubtedly recognize her sterling vocals. Not merely soulful, Hogan interprets lyrics with such vibrant savvy. She’s startling and beguiling. The Georgia-born and Midwest-lived Hogan is best-known for being the singing sidekick to one Neko Case, and although their voices pair beautifully together and the two also have famously paired stage chemistry, Hogan’s solo potential has remained largely untapped. She didn’t attract much attention as a solo artist last year’s I Like to Keep Myself In Pain, even though her early releases from more than a decade ago testified to what her voice could do.

I Like to Keep Myself In Pain saw Hogan tackling John Wesley Harding (“Sleeper Awake”), M. Ward’s Sinatra tribute (“Daddy’s Little Girl”), and the straightforwardness of Jon Langford’s “Haunted,” as well as the late Vic Chesnutt’s bittersweet “Ways Of This World.” Yet nowhere found her better than the title track, granted to her from Robyn Hitchcock. It’s the moment where the bottled-up Hogan uncorks and rips out a soulful, “Ohhhhh, yeahhhh” with some teeth, then changes keys softly and suavely, settling back into a croon over the metronome of a slow-dance drumbeat. It’s the moment Hogan arrives.

Though the room of the Cactus Club is, at its heart, a rock venue, the acoustics are a dream for vocals-centric outfits. Hogan’s band of Chicagoland friends and collaborators (Nora O’Connor on bass, Casey McDonough on guitar and Gerald Dowd on the kit) flanked Hogan, who stood stage-center, a majestic figure in a sweeping black outfit complete with the sass of turquoise stockings. Hogan swung into that title track like she does on the album, building slow and steady, then ripping it all apart again. Chameleon-like, she pressed forward with Andrew Birds’/Jack Pendarvis’ “We Can’t Have Nice Things,” showing off some jazzier stretches, dipping and diving alongside O’Connor’s thumping bass and McDonough’s playful guitar interplay with Dowd’s drum lines. When the band eased from the playful bombast that fit the improv mood and Hogan’s buddy-buddy banter with the crowd, it was with sincerity. Hogan had written a song when her pal Case was having a bad day and Hogan took that sincerity to heart, belting to her friend, “I wanna hear your voice comin’ outta my radio / I wanna see your face on the billboard sign / cause I know how hard you try and I know sometimes it makes you cry / I just wish I could be there to bring you by.”

Playfulness and sincerity turned to the hushed and reverent pain of Stephin Merritt’s “Plant White Roses,” Hogan’s balance holding the audience’s attention and appreciation. Years of being co-pilot on big tours has given Hogan an ease that is damn nice to be on the receiving end of, and after taking her audience through those lyrical and musical ups and downs, she always came to a sweet resting spot between chugs off a bottle of PBR. “Pretty sure someone just got pregnant during that one,” she assured those directly stage-front, after a particularly swoon-y number, jolting them out of the reverie she had just pulled them into. A true show woman, Hogan effortlessly and stylishly eased through those poignant versus irreverent moments until the very end. Hogan enticed her band to “play a chase song!” to see them off the stage, reminiscent of a bygone-era musical television program. Although oddball, it was a triumphant and fitting end for a crowd who were magnetized to Hogan’s star presence and for Hogan, who gets obvious joy from making music and her well-deserved turn in the spotlight.