The Flat Five.Posted: June 19, 2007
The Flat Five opened a concert I attended the other night, and were far more musically rewarding than the headlining act. (I claim discovery, since, in a pretty exhaustive search, I have not found one other blog that mentions them!)
They are an anachronism—and yet not. Though young, The Flat Five is all about the “group vocal” sound. This is a sound that had many popular exponents in the pop folk country rock jazz of the 60s and 70s—The Beach Boys, The Byrds, The Mamas and Papas, Spanky & Our Gang, The Free Design, Dan Hicks & the Hot Licks, Asleep at the Wheel, The Manhattan Transfer, et. al. (And before them, The Pied Pipers, The Modernaires, The Mel-Tones, The Hi-Los, et. al.) But the group vocal sound hasn’t had an infusion of new young talent in quite some time. The Flat Five don’t just resurrect the genre, they make it feel of the moment. There’s proper respect for their forebears, but they don’t feel retro. There’s nothing “precious” or mummified about the music they make. They make you feel like it never went away.
The musicians who make up The Flat Five have roots in other kinds of music, mainly alt-country, country/rock, bluegrass, and jazz. They are: Kelly Hogan on vocals; Nora O’Connor on vocals and guitar; Scott Ligon on vocals, guitar and keyboards; K.C. McDonough on vocals and bass; and Gerald Dowd on vocals and drums. (The night I saw them, Dowd was out with a sprained wrist, so the harmonies I heard were four-part, not five-part—but beautiful.) They have been and are in other bands (from what I can gather, they multitask, taking gigs separately and apart in other aggregations) like The Lamentations, The Blacks, and The Wooden Leg.
From The Flat Five’s opening notes on Saturday, they made you notice that they are The Real Thing. It’s depressingly easy to imagine someone trying to sing this kind of music, but almost impossible to believe someone new these days is pulling it off. But they do. They have the chops to achieve a well-intoned and dynamically coherent blend, which is harder in some ways than singing lead, when you can take liberties. (Both women have solo recordings out on Bloodshot Records, which are available on iTunes.)
Right away I could hear in their sound the influence of two groups from the late sixties, The Free Design and Spanky & Our Gang. I was gratified to have my insight confirmed when later in the set they performed The Free Design’s “Kites Are Fun” and S&OG’s very hip version of “Without Rhyme or Reason” (written by Bob Dorough and Fran Landsman, arranged by Dorough). I don’t know for sure, but I always suspected that S&OG required several takes in the studio, and perhaps a combination of takes, to get it right, while The Flat Five nailed it live.
The band has a winning onstage persona. It’s kind of summed up in the name, which is self-deprecating (as in, “forgive us if we sing flat”—which they don’t) and proud (as in, “you know those complicated bop harmonies that have flatted fifths in them? we can sing those”). The patter, mostly delivered by Kelly Hogan, who comes across as the leader, has that same combination of self-effacing modesty and justifiable pride. She misattributed Nat Adderley’s and Jon Hendricks’ “Sermonette” to George Gershwin, and I don’t know how she could do that, but I forgive her. I also think she may have misattributed “Without Rhyme or Reason,” but I can’t be sure because as she was saying it a guy climbed into our row and distracted me for a second. But something didn’t ring true. No matter, since the music-making did.
While no blogs have mentioned The Flat Five before this one, there are two good posts about Nora O’Connor on a blog titled shake your fist. One (containing an interview with O’Connor) is here, and the other one is here.
The Flat Five is appearing at Davenport’s in Chicago this Thursday night. I hope to make it.