KELLY HOGAN with BOB EGAN, opening for NEKO CASE, at the Horseshoe (370 Queen West), Friday and Saturday (May 12 and 13). $8. 598-4753. Rating: NNNNN
CHICAGO -- In a record-lined living room of a Wicker Park brownstone, Kelly Hogan is sweeping up the tumbleweed-sized clumps of hair shed by the howling malamute sidekick of departing house-guest Travis Good.
She's spending these few precious moments alone with her Ella Fitzgerald recordings to find the inspiration she needs to swing through some Cole Porter and Gershwin standards at a snooty Library of America poetry anthology launch this evening.
Then it's off to the laundromat where the wash and spin cycles should be time enough to review the lyrics of So In Love and Let's Do It Again, which she's performing at the Curtis Mayfield tribute concert. In the back of her mind there's still the nut-busting challenge of belting out the Star Spangled Banner for a stadium full of soccer hooligans at the next Chicago Fire home game.
Whether it's shouting the National Anthem before thousands of strangers or accepting Alejandro Escovedo's impromptu mid-concert requests to duet on unfamiliar tunes, a little risk keeps things exciting for an interpretive stylist like Hogan.
What makes her exceptional is that she can sell a lyrical Hoagy Carmichael ballad with the same authority that she powers her way through a Fugazi hardcore thrash.
Broad range More than just hitting the notes, a special talent is required to get at the spine-tingling poignancy of songs like Brother Can You Spare A Dime?.
Later, at the library soiree, as Hogan delivers the closing refrain of that dusty period piece, Chicago's stuffed-shirt literati are reaching for their monogrammed handkerchiefs while I pretend there's a speck in my eye.
Just imagine the kind of havoc Hogan can wreak with songs she's actually lived.
Hearing the down-home sizzle of her new Beneath The Country Underdog album (Bloodshot), it's immediately clear that the Atlanta-reared scorcher has finally found her Southern voice. It's a little country, a little soul and all Hogan.
Burning up Freddie Hart's Easy Loving and snarling out Johnny Paycheck's (It's A Mighty Thin Line) Between Love And Hate, she invests enough of herself in each phrase to claim ownership.
"I'm on a mission to make performing a singer's art again," insists Hogan, who learned to sing Tom Jones records before she could read. "Bob Dylan messed everything up for us all. After him, suddenly you had to write your own songs to validate what you did as a singer.
"Writing songs doesn't occur to me, although it does occur to me to listen to songs all day and wonder how it would feel to get inside them. That's completely natural for me -- writing songs isn't.
"If you think about it, there aren't many bands with people who can sing anymore. There just aren't many real singers out there who can interpret a tune. So when I saw Neko Case for the first time and she just opened up -- boom -- she blew me away. It made me so happy and grateful that I bought her like 2,000 drinks."
It's obvious from the love-struck sighs that arise whenever Hogan or Case talk about each other (see sidebar) that their connection runs far deeper than mutual respect between peers.
They share similar taste in music and a twisted sense of humour -- they're really dirty birds of a feather. They're as close as two people can be without sharing blood or spit. Hopefully, after being cooped up together in a van for a week on tour, they'll still want to go ahead with the gospel album they've been discussing.
"We have very different approaches to singing, so I think we'll complement each other really well. It's like, here I am cruising along in my Lincoln Continental with the seat belt on, and along comes Neko in this crazy, out-of-control sports car, careening around a mountain road and shootin' gravel over the edge. It's a thrilling ride to the end of every one of her songs.
"By the time we get to Toronto, we'll either be lesbian lovers or one of us will show up at the Horseshoe with the other's head on a stake. I'm hoping it's the former, 'cause I really want to do that gospel record with her. I love Neko. That little tooth of hers? Oooh, I just want to suck on it!"
What Case and Hogan also share is an attitude toward the music they sing. Neither one has much use for irony. Their voices are powerful enough that they don't need the fail-safe of keeping their tongue in cheek.
Straight shooter "I have too much respect for the lyrics to ever be winking while I sing. That's chicken. If you believe the words, you should sing 'em like you mean 'em. I'd sooner drop dead onstage than have people think I was doing a Loretta Lynn song ironically -- that goes for Your Squaw's On The Warpath.
"Some writer said it was cheesy for me to sing Rizzo's song There Are Worse Things I Could Do, from Grease, at my record release party. My guitarist, Andy Hopkins, dared me, so I did it a cappella. Halfway through, I started hearing all the punk chicks in the audience singing along. It's the bad-rep anthem -- it speaks to women in my age group.
"This other critic claimed I tainted the Magnetic Fields' Papa Was A Rodeo because I was too earnest or something. Whatever."
Actually, along with her impassioned reading of Percy Sledge's Sudden Stop and the wistful closing sweep through the Band's Whispering Pines, Hogan's plaintive revision of Stephin Merritt's Papa Was A Rodeo is among the album's finest moments.
"People just love that Papa Was A Rodeo song. It's the favourite song of both my mom and my Republican brother. I've never spoken to Stephin Merritt before, but I hope he likes it, too. I'm really a fan of the artists whose songs I do, and this is just my way of sending folks like Johnny Paycheck and Willie Nelson little love letters."
Hogan still chuckles about the showbiz advice her well-meaning brother laid on her about "wearing mini skirts and singing covers of songs people know" as a surefire way of getting ahead. Andre Williams, on the other hand, believes she's set for stardom.
"Yeah," she laughs, "Andre has all the statistics. He said, 'Kelly, you ain't pretty, but that's a good thing -- that's your edge. You see, 62 per cent of college women today are depressed. They're all gonna go out and buy your record and take it back to their dorm rooms in a brown paper bag 'cause they won't want to be seen with it.
"'But when they start playing it, they'll hear the same music coming out of each other's rooms and they'll all come out into the hallway. Right then they'll realize that you're the most beautiful one of all.'"