There is proficiency, and then there is mastery. When your proficient, missteps and hiccups are few and far between, but when you have mastery, those mistakes become part of the beauty that music delivers. The mistakes are backed up by passion and brilliance, making them feel natural and essential. This realization came to me in the middle of The Flat Five’s set at Thalia Hall last week, where the Chicago super group convened for astonishingly masterful performance. Watching these five local giants of music in Pilsen’s beautiful confines play through It’s a World of Love and Hope was a sight and sound to behold, one that will surely stick with the crowd.
The night started off with OHMME, the musical project of Sima Cunningham and Macie Stewart. Fresh off releasing their debut E.P. on vinyl, the pair was in majestic form. I’ve seen and reviewed the duo countless times and had previously cemented themselves in my mind as one of the best and my personal favorite Chicago bands. In fact the first thing I did upon entering Thalia Hall was pick up their album. Their sound is as honed as ever, continuing the experimental juxtaposition of serene vocals with breathtaking clashes of distortion.
Songs like “Fingerprints” with its reciprocating ooo’s and ahh’s and their cover of the Sugarcubes’ “Birthday” offer moments of calm playing before diving into more explosive moments. It’s that ever building ethereal atmosphere that sends OHMME’s sounds into sublime chaos. “Furniture” evokes this energy best, with lyrics that demand independence and instrumentals that underline the sentiment with their ferocity. They ended their time with “Woman”, a song that has become synonymous with the band that once was named after the French word for man. No matter how many times I’ve heard the escalating yelps of “I’m fine!” coming from Cunningham and Stewart descend into shredded guitars weeping for mercy, I find myself reaffirming my affinity for this amazing band.
I’m sure that the range of style between OHMME’s avant garde sound and the jukebox of genres The Flat Five explores may have been an issue for some, but clearly the majority of the crowd felt invigorated and prepared from the duo impressive performance. It came across particularly clear as Kelly Hogan, Scott Ligon, Alex Hall, Nora O’Conner, and Casey McDonough emerge from the back and dove into their lengthy set. The Flat Five quickly set the tone as This Is Your Night” came on early in the set. It felt like a nice love letter to the crowd, emphasizing the band’s course to give this very engaged audience something special.
Throughout the night The Flat Five jumped between covers and originals. While covers of Captain Beefheart’s “Yellow Brick Road” and Joe South’s “Birds of a Feather” were amazing, the true gems were the tracks off It’s a World of Love and Hope. Chris Ligon’s compositions are undeniably catchy and sweet, but their slightly odd and mischievous lyrics give them a wonderful edge that resonates incredibly well. “I Could Fall in Love With You” stretches a sense of stubbornness to extremes and lyrics like “Doctors cannot seem to help her with her hocus pocus but a drug might” in “Buglight” give you a little grin amidst its happy go lucky instrumentals.
The Flat Five switched things up the whole night, joking around as they changed instruments and band numbers constantly. Hall traded his drums for an accordion at one point, Ligon jump from keys to guitars, while O’Conner shifted between guitar, melodica, banjo, and of course a blue kazoo. Their prowess and mastery seemed to be unflinching, gathering all these moments of band synchronicity that always felt impressive. At one point, Scott Ligon’s wife Sharon came out to play the yellow guitar known as “Ole Yeller” as the sixth Flat Five member, after which Hogan exclaimed “We’re going to do a little math and make the Flat Five the letter 3.” They were having the time of their lives even as Hogan lamented the full moon making her feel weird. “I rubbed some tequila on my back,” uttered Hogan, explaining her remedy. Thankfully it worked, with any little misstep like a false start on a freshly performed song feeling natural.
Despite having supported the release of It’s a World of Love and Hope with many amazing shows, there were still a song or that received live debuts. The simple and tender beauty of “She’s Only Five”, an arrangement of instruments and gentle wordless vocals, and “The World Missed Out on Me”, another fantastic Chris Ligon penned song, gave the diehard fans of The Flat Five something new to obsess over. Not that the familiar songs didn’t demand obsession. Every one of their songs revealed something a little extra, building up the strangely pretty world of Chris Ligon’s mind. Whether it’s the subversiveness of references in “You’re Still Joe” or the face value of “Birmingham”, The Flat Five always shine the best light on their songs.
As the Flat Five finished “Almond Grove”, the crowd stood from their chairs and delivered a deserving standing ovation, prompting The Flat Five to return to the stage. They the audience a trio of familiar covers, songs that the five piece have incorporated into their sets in the past. Jimmy Webb’s “Paper Cup”, The Roches “Hammond”, and The Free Design’s “I Found Love” were played with all the finesse and mastery of the songs that preceded it. It was a tip of the hat to influences and greatness that was capped off with the perfect farewell of “It’s Been a Delight”. While the evening didn’t last the whole night until the morning like the song suggests, I’m sure most of left with the beautiful songs of The Flat Five humming in our ears.
All photos by Julian Ramirez