LISTENING POST: The tribe that won’t shut up!
Kelly Hogan and Bill Taft (W8ing4UFOs) recount misty-colored memories prior to their sold-out show at the Vista Room tonight
Friends, Atlantans, comrades in hot buttered soul and the American Songbook, lend me your ears (or eyeballs, as it were). As we plunge headlong into the second decade of the 21st century, precariously poised on the precipice, I come to praise two of the finest musical talents ever nurtured by our fair metropolis. Three decades and change after reigning supreme over the local alt-indie-progressive music scene as founding members of The Jody Grind, three years after a similar all-star reunion during Christmas season 2016, chanteuse extraordinaire Kelly Hogan and guitarist-banjoist-singer-songwriter-and-occasional-cornetist Bill Taft will once again share a bill Friday night, fronting their respective bands at the Vista Room.
For the sold-out (sorry, kids) concert, Hogan will be grounded by regular rhythm-mates Nora O’Connor (Andrew Bird, The Decemberists) on bass and John Carpender (Expo ’76) on drums, augmented by hometown guitar hero Andy Hopkins (one-half of FLAP) who has played with Hogan in multiple settings over the millennia. Taft will be commandeering W8ing4UFOs, the most recent in a long line of misfit savant troupes to fall under his sway. This one features Brian Halloran (cello), Katie Butler (viola), Billy Fields (keyboards), Sean Dunn (electric guitar), and Will Fratesi (drums, squeezebox).
Today, Hogan’s resume includes multiple solo albums, national television appearances, world tours, and recorded collaborations with artists ranging from Rock*A*Teens, Mavis Staples, and Jakob Dylan to Drive-By Truckers and Neko Case. Many Listening Post readers already know much of the deeper backstory. An Atlanta native, after graduating from Douglas County High School, Class of 1983, Hogan became immersed in the flourishing underground music scene. A year later, the classically trained singer with the sultry Southern voice was in her element, slaying audiences with The Jody Grind’s irresistibly imaginative amalgam of jazz, Appalachian balladry, country twang, and power pop swagger.
The tragic closing act of The Jody Grind saga has been recounted multiple times by this correspondent and others. Let it suffice to mention that any concert featuring Hogan, Taft, Halloran, and Fratesi automatically qualifies both as a memorial for and celebration of the lives and art of their late compatriots — Deacon Lunchbox (Tim Ruttenber) and former Jody Grind members Robert Hayes and Rob Clayton — who were killed when their vehicle was struck by a drunk motorist on Easter Sunday 1992.
Taft, Halloran, and Fratesi have been playing together since forever in myriad congregations including the Opal Foxx Quartet, Smoke, Hubcap City, and Smoke That City. Fields is a seasoned veteran of the Atlanta scene with credits including Follow for Now, Rev Rebel, Seek, and Antagonizers ATL. Rounding out the UFOers are Dunn, electric-guitar-shredder-maximus from Athens-based Five-Eight, and Butler, whose viola also elevates the evocative escapades of Evan Stepp & the Piners and The Chumblers.
Tonight's concert at the Vista Room promises to be one helluva gathering of the tribe. Expect cross-pollination between bands, an excessive amount of revelry and remembrance, and more laughing and crying than you can shake a “cheese and pickle sandwich squished flat under a sofa cushion and thrown to the infield from the roof of a rented Ryder rig in gastronomical disgust” at (Deacon Lunchbox from Some Different Kinds of Songs).
Listening Post posed a few questions to Taft and Hogan. Both eagerly followed through with answers, the responses only slightly edited for clarity.
Listening Post: It wasn’t very long after moving to Atlanta in 1982 that you started playing music around town. As briefly as possible, tell the story about meeting Kelly and forming The Jody Grind.
Bill Taft: Turtles, the record store (where Hogan was working at the time). Kelly let me hang out there. She laughed at my jokes. Her laugh had a hint of danger to it, like, if I asked her to rob a few banks with me, she would be all in. I also saw her a lot at Atkins Park. We’d hang out there and talk about music. She could talk about the Beastie Boys and Duke Ellington, REM and Billie Holiday. And she knew a lot about country music.
I tend to book the gig first, then see who can help play the show. This method brought Kelly and me together. I had a Monday-night gig at the Little Five Points Pub. I asked her to sing some songs as part of the set. She fit right in. And then other places asked us to play. Under the name An Evening with the Garbage Man, we played with friends at the Little Five Points Pub and the White Dot a lot. The White Dot was a lot of fun because we could do just about anything. They also gave Deacon Lunchbox much support.
LP: Where did the name An Evening with the Garbageman come from?
BT: I liked variety shows, vaudeville, ironic lounge music, and blues. I saw a poster for a Tony Bennett show, something like “An Evening with Tony Bennett.” I wanted a name for the ever-changing group that tied all those elements together. When I was little, four or five, I wanted to be a garbage man. I wanted to ride around on the back of the truck and toss trash into the mouth of the machine and watch it go away. All the other kids wanted to be astronauts and cowboys and baseball players. Not me.
After a while, the sound of the group with Kelly became consistent and steady. So we needed a new name, something that reflected the new sound: The Jody Grind. We found a book that included a section on jazz slang. The term comes from a World War II-era joke about women doing “the Jody grind” while their husbands and boyfriends were away overseas.
LP: Over the years, you’ve fronted a lot of bands: The Jody Grind, Chowder Shouters, Smoke, Smoke That City, and now W8ing4UFOs. Is there a common theme or impetus, which ties the bands together or explains why you keep forming bands?
BT: People keep asking me to play shows, so I keep showing up with friends. A lot of what I’ve always done is bring groups together in order to play shows.
Music has given me a chance to make all of my childhood dreams come true.
Listening Post: In a previous interview, you told me about the first time you sang in front of an audience, something about a camp retreat and being in a bathing suit.
Kelly Hogan: It was Girl Scout summer camp, Camp Tanglewood, in Martinez, Georgia, around 1976 or ’77. I walked around camp for three days in a damp bathing suit because my tent-mates stole my clothes while I was in swim class. They refused to give them back until I agreed to sing at the closing ceremony on the last day. I sang “Memories” from The Way We Were, a cappella, in front of about 200 people: counselors, parents, campers. I was barefooted, wearing raggedy denim cut-offs and a red-white-and-blue t-shirt that read, “Eat Beans. America Needs the Gas.”
LP: When and where was your first gig with a real band?
KH: Unbeknownst to my parents, I sat in on a few jazz standards with (I think it was) Tim Settimi’s band at Cafe Debris in Buckhead on Thanksgiving night, 1982. I was 17.
LP: Bill (Taft) said he wasn’t sure, but you might remember when and where was the first official Jody Grind gig?
KH: Hard to say, because we evolved so gradually from the Evening with the Garbageman open mic nights at the White Dot. Our little snowball of dog hair, dryer lint, and duct tape just kept rolling along until it got big enough to put a real name on it.
LP: When was the first "Kelly Hogan" solo/headliner gig?
KH: Dang, also hard to say. The Star Bar probably, 1995 or so, with the Noxzema Three (Andy Hopkins, Jo Jameson, Andrew Barker) while we were working on my first solo record (The Whistle Only Dogs Can Hear, 1996).
LP: What’s your favorite song to perform from the mythical Great American Songbook?
KH: When I was around four or five years old, I used to love to sing along with Mitch Miller records with my teenage Aunt Debbie in her bedroom at my grandparents’ house in Marietta. "Toot, Toot, Tootsie (Goodbye)" was my stone cold jam. I still have a tiny soft spot for barbershop, but I try not to waft that towards anyone else.
LP: What’s your favorite song to perform that was written for you?
KH: "Ways of This World" by Vic Chesnutt. I had the great honor and pleasure of knowing Vic, although not very well. Yet, somehow, in that song he told me the story of my own life. Pretty much verbatim. I’m not worthy. None of us are. Vic is the king.
LP: What is the craziest/funniest thing that happened during or at a live gig?
KH: I can’t use any “-est” qualifiers for these answers. I’m too old and have too many miles on me. However, one time in the middle of a Jody Grind show in the early ’90s, Bill Taft helped me cut off my hair with a Bowie knife, onstage at Sluggo’s in Pensacola. It was an unplanned, impulsive act (a recent divorce + Jägermeister). I'd managed to saw off one foot-long braid with some dull office scissors I’d found backstage, but the second braid was taking too long (so long that the soundman had started playing Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” over the PA). Finally, Bill wordlessly walked over to me with his guitar still strapped on, whipped his knife out of his back pocket, and cut off the other braid with one quick and clean swipe, all the way to my nape — and we kicked into our next song. They nailed that sliced braid above the soundboard where it stayed, covered in gummy cobwebs, for many years. I still have the scissored one in my sock drawer.
LP: What’s the most embarrassing/goofiest thing that ever happened during or at a gig (might be the same as craziest/funniest thing)?
KH: Again, no way to pick the “-est”; there are at least 10,000,000+ embarrassing stage things in my life. But, one time I was sick during a Jody Grind show at The Downstairs in Athens. I realized during the middle of a song that I was gonna throw up. So I yelled “Take it!” to our bass player, Robert Hayes, and ran to the bathroom as fast as I could, barfed my guts up, and ran back onstage in time to do the last verse of the song. I found out later that, because the club was so small, the audience could hear me puking almost as loudly as Robert’s bass solo. They gave me a round of applause for finishing the song.
More recently, I’ve been onstage after singing most of a set, once with Neko Case and once with my band The Flat Five, before realizing my dress was on inside out. That’s one of the perils of having to get ready for a show behind a dumpster outside the rock club.
And this one’s for the ladies. Show of hands, please: Who else here has started their period very unexpectedly while onstage at the Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco, one song into their set while going commando in a skirt? Anyone? Woohoo! Good times! Thankfully, it never got gory. No one but me ever knew. I just stood completely still while singing for 30 minutes and then kinda bunny-hopped offstage to the bathroom. And that’s what showbiz is all about, Charlie Brown.
LP: What’s your favorite band/van/road story?
KH: There are way too many to tell, so here’s just one. We were on a Jody Grind tour opening for Robyn Hitchcock on a freezing cold night in Fell’s Point in Baltimore. It was our bass player Robert Hayes’s turn to sleep in the van to keep our gear safe overnight. He bedded down in our Ford XLT, drank a big bottle of Valpolicella to stay warm, but then had to pee. He peed in the empty wine bottle, corked it, and sat it outside on the cobblestones to throw away in the morning.
Later during the night, Robert heard two dudes jiggling the van door handles and then saw them start trying to siphon our gas tank. He yelled and scared them off. In the morning, Robert saw that his pee bottle was missing. It delighted him to no end to believe that the buttholes trying to break into our van and steal our gas had found that full wine bottle and taken a few swigs. Well, at least one.
LP: What’s your favorite Atlanta venue in which to perform?
KH: For a thousand reasons, I’ll always have a crush on The Star Bar. I also have super-fond memories about playing The Point with The Rock*A*Teens. I cried all the way through my farewell show with them there when I was moving to Chicago.
And I’ll never forget our album release show at The Point during a really horrible ice storm. The sound man was making fun of our crappy gear and our yowly songs during soundcheck. Then he looked up at the weather report on the bar TV and said, “I’ll tell y'all one thing. Ain’t nobody coming out to this fucking show tonight.” But, it ended up being a super-fun and sweaty packed-to-the-rafters SOLD OUT show. It was the best-ever revenge.
LP: What’s your favorite Atlanta venue in which to be in the audience?
KH: The Fox Theater. I adore every brick in that joint. I’ve seen so many great shows there. B-52s, R.E.M., Eurythmics, Sinead O’Connor, Tony Bennett, X, Linda Ronstadt, Devo, Puddles Pity Party, The Judds, Iggy Pop, umm, Liberace. Yeah! All very great!
LP: What’s the best-ever meal on the road, including internationally?
KH: Damn. There are soooooo many “worst-ever road meals,” but I’ve been very lucky to have had lots of “best of” meals, too. I can’t possibly name the absolute best, so I’ll name the very first one that sprang to mind: a surprise feast that was waiting for all of us very road-weary Decemberists in our dressing room after soundcheck at the State Theater in Portland Maine. Big platters of warm messy-buttery lobster rolls and endless dozens of raw oysters on ice (with a nice dude standing there shucking ’em on demand.) I think my fellow oyster-loving back-up singing buddy Nora O’Connor and I both started crying with happiness and gratitude.
LP: What’s the best-ever meal in Atlanta?
KH: I’ll have a Varsity chili slaw dog with onion rings and a P.C. with ice, thank you. And oh man, we had a spectacular band meal (with my mom and stepdad along too) at Miller Union on a rare off-night during our 2017 Decemberists tour. I think that’s my personal ATL acme meal. Incredible. Satterfield in 2020!
LP: What’s your favorite dish to cook?
KH: Damn, I love to cook anything and everything. I love winging it with whatever I have in the pantry and making a big pot of chicken and dumplings or pozole or spaghetti sauce or something else that steams up the windows and takes all day (best when it’s snowing outside). Recently, I’ve been hankering to slow roast some cocoa-spice-rub bone-in pork butt. It’s ridiculously delicious and makes your house smell incredible.
LP: What’s your favorite dish to eat?
KH: My mom Hilda’s country-fried deer steak with gravy and buttermilk biscuits. Sushi and cold sake at Sai Cafe in Chicago. A big glass of red wine and a big bowl of pasta e fagioli at La Scarola in Chicago (this last combo is also best when it’s snowing outside}.
LP: What’s your favorite dog story?
KH: I have tons of stories involving my late, great poodle mix, Augie. She toured with every band I was ever in since she was three months old until she was almost 15. Back in the early ’00s, my solo band was on tour opening for Indigo Girls, with us in our cruddy van, trailing them in their tour bus. On our way to Toronto from Niagara Falls, we all arrived at the Canadian border for a routine crossing in the wee hours of the morning. As our vehicles pulled in we were all immediately surrounded by a big crowd of agitated-looking border patrol agents shining flashlights in our faces. What the hell?!
They gruffly mustered Amy and Emily and their band and crew off their tour bus and us out of our van and had us all stand there on the asphalt. A dozen agents started to search the tour bus, and as another dozen came towards our van to do the same, I blurted out, “Hey! Our dog is in there!” The group of agents all immediately froze in place and their hands went to their holstered guns. A female agent yelled, “Is it aggressive?!” Me, panicking: “No! Not at all!”
They crept to the van en masse in excruciating slow-motion and gingerly slid the side door open to reveal my wiggly little dog sitting there on the bench seat with her tennis ball in her mouth, happy as hell to see so many people. The agents collectively exhaled and relaxed and we all started laughing. After a cursory van search, they finally chilled out enough to tell us they were expecting Eminem’s tour entourage at the border at some point that night, and that Eminem (at the time) was forbidden to come into Canada.
When they saw our bus and van pulling in, they'd thought we were him. Hence, the massive and stiff reception. I always kinda felt sorry for them. They were all bowed up for Slim Shady, but instead just got a bunch of sleepy folk-rockers and a 20-pound mutt hoping for a fetch.
LP: What’s your favorite thing to do when not doing professional music stuff?
KH: Kayaking on the Sugar River near my house in Wisconsin with my dogs. Hands down. It keeps me from killing myself. Or others.
LP: What is your guiltiest pleasure?
KH: My Spotify playlist is extremely not-cool. All my friends know how very square I am. I love harmony, so, yeah, I listen to lots of the Free Design and The Hollies and Andy Bey and the Bey Sisters. But, I also listen to the Osmond Brothers and Jackie and Roy. I’m dirty. I have no shame.
And I live alone, so when I’m home I can do whatever the hell I want most of the time. This Christmas, I gave myself a one-night pass to eat a ton of those little crunchy french-fried onions straight out of the can while binge-watching Glow Up on Netflix. I’m still brushing the grease off my tongue a week later, but at the time it kicked holiday ass. —CL—