Kelly Hogan was perfection singing Richard Buckner’s “Blue And Wonder”, accompanied only by Andy Hopkins’ sensitive guitar and the melancholy keening of Jon Rauhaus’ almost human pedal steel. Perfection was the signature of this show, an evening of all but flawless performances of challenging music that variously evoked David Byrne, the Ray Charles Revue, Cornershop and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, to name a few. But Hogan sang in a class by herself, wielding effortlessly the power of her voice and phrasing to draw the audience out of themselves into chills, tears, tenderness, and a laugh or two.
Hogan’s stage presence was both winsome and sultry, her banter salty and fun, as she spun off several new songs from her new release on Bloodshot, planned for October. She said Alejandro Escovedo’s constant hectoring prodded her to write songs for it, although her covers, including The Band’s “Whispering Pines” (on which Nora O’Connor sang harmony) and Magnetic Fields’ “Papa Was A Rodeo”, unfailingly surpass the original versions. One uptempo Hogan original, “Sugar Bowl”, recalled her friendship with a co-worker at an all-night diner. Another, “One Million And One Songs”, responded from a woman’s perspective to the Sadies’ seed-sowing “One Million Songs”.
The drop-dead stunner, though, was Hazel Dickens’ “Hills Of Gallilee”. Hogan choked up as she noted that it was Mother’s Day and the song was her mother’s favorite. She sang it a cappella, all sweet mountain complexity, and even the night fell silent.
Fortunately, the moment evaded the trains that, to fans’ delight, occasionally roar through sets at Solar Culture. It was such a perfect desert evening, the venue had its back door open to the tracks, not 30 yards away. Forewarned, Andrew Bird’s Bowl Of Fire was ready with “Way Out West” from its new release, The Swimming Hour. Bird’s sublime take on cult westerns includes a line about a train, and Kevin O’Donnell’s signature precision drumming maintained, even as the real train decelerated.
Nora O’Connor’s impeccable pop and soul feel provides just the depth and color demanded by Bird’s sweeping artistic vision on The Swimming Hour. Those songs dominated the set, Bird’s violin mastery summoning variously the sound of mandolin, steel drum, marimba and banjo. He sang with a passion unexplored in his earlier releases, and even whistled a verse with perfect tone and evocative phrasing. His new songs were standouts, consistent with the impossibly smart wordiness and exactingly dynamic arrangements on The Swimming Hour. The set closed with Hogan and O’Connor singing girl-group fills to the heart-racing “How Indiscreet”, and a hilariously touching “Dear Old Greenland”.
Bird was glad to be in the desert, he said as he removed his shirt. “It’s the first time in a year I haven’t been cold. Everywhere else is at least just a little bit cold.” The fans’ reception was off the thermometer.