Drag City producer and head of staff Rian Murphy is usually sparing with compliments, but mention guitarist Emmett Kelly and the floodgates open. “Oh yeah, what a star that kid is,” Murphy says. “His feeling for the music is really deep, and his playing is–I don’t want to say mature beyond his years, but I’m constantly surprised at how polished and classic his sounds are.”
Kelly has lived in Chicago only since late 2004, but in that short time the 25-year-old has established a reputation as one of the city’s fastest-rising talents. His elegant and lyrical playing reflects influences as diverse as 60s Brit folkie Steve Ashley and postpunk virtuoso Nels Cline, and since his arrival here he’s accompanied several respected songwriters, including Azita Youssefi, Edith Frost, and Beth Orton.
For the past few months Kelly’s also been playing in the Boogie Band, an indie all-star lineup that specializes in rock, blues, and R&B covers (it has a weekly gig at the Big Horse), and in the spring he’ll release his first proper album as the Cairo Gang, a name he’s used for bands and solo projects since high school. His swift embrace by the Chicago music community has been something of a vindication for him–he’s dedicated most of his life to the guitar, and until now he’s had little to show for it aside from some off-putting industry experiences in the late 90s.
Kelly was born in LA into a musical family, the middle child between two sisters. His father drummed with a late-60s London psych group called the Majority–much of their output is collected on the recent RPM reissue Rainbow Rockin’ Chair–and met his mother, an Italian-American from Detroit, while they were both playing percussion for an itinerant hippie band in Amsterdam in the early 70s.
Kelly started playing guitar at ten, and though he’d grown up listening to his parents’ classic-rock albums, in junior high he graduated to harder stuff like the Dead Kennedys and Crass. “I was huge into punk,” he says. “Then I heard Sonic Youth, and that totally rearranged my head.” He started the first Cairo Gang, a noisy shoegazer band, while in high school in Reseda, California. His next group, Prophet 5, was offered a development deal after just one show–Zomba Records, a major indie that owned labels like Jive and Silvertone, wanted to see what it could make of the group. “We were kids,” admits Kelly. “We got in way over our heads.”
Jeff Blue, the A and R man who signed Prophet 5, had been almost single-handedly responsible for the rise of nu metal, cultivating acts like Korn and Linkin Park. “I dunno what he was thinking getting involved with us,” says Kelly. “We were into Slowdive, Spiritualized, and old Verve. And he wanted to make us into Third Eye Blind or something.” The band had only cut a few demos when Blue left Zomba for a job at Warner Brothers. Prophet 5 sat out the rest of their contract and broke up soon after.
Itching to get out of LA, Kelly enrolled at Boston’s Berklee College of Music in fall 1999. “Me and my friends had access to the rehearsal room, and we’d go in there and drop acid and jam for hours and hours,” he says. “We’d go on these musical journeys, just exploring all of these crazy sounds.”
In 2001, after saving up a few hundred dollars, Kelly dropped out of school and flew to Europe, where he kicked around for several months. “Just basically being a bum and doing street music,” he says. He returned to the U.S. in October and spent the next two years bouncing between LA, Brooklyn, and Port Townsend, Washington. For a short time he was a songwriter for a Hollywood film-music company, and in 2002 he used some of that money to make an eclectic CD-R of solo sketchbook recordings as the Cairo Gang. In fall 2003 he moved into a downtown LA warehouse space, where for the next year he worked on several projects–two more Cairo Gang discs, a duo LP with psych-folk multi-instrumentalist Nick Huntington called The Surf the Sundried (released by Attacknine last summer), and several albums of material with singer-songwriter John Webster Johns under the name Charlemaignes.
In fall 2004 Kelly decided to head back to New York, and on his way stopped to visit his older sister in Chicago. “And I never left,” he says. “I was exposed to all this cool music everywhere and I immediately met a bunch of awesome people.” Among them was Azita Youssefi, former front woman for Bride of No No. “I was drunk at a bar and we were talking,” he says. “She said she was looking for a guitar player. I started to play with her and she totally whipped me into shape.”
“He was already in shape, man,” says Youssefi, laughing. “He’s just an unbelievable player. I can’t imagine anybody with ears not wanting to play with him.” Kelly toured with Youssefi in January 2005, and after he introduced her to his roommate, writer Brian Torrey Scott, she composed and recorded a suite of songs for Scott’s play Detail From the Mountain Side with Kelly on guitar. The set will be released by Drag City in early February.
Kelly’s work with Youssefi quickly led to further offers. In spring 2005 Rian Murphy asked him to appear on Edith Frost’s album It’s a Game, and his dreamy country guitar colors six of its tracks. In August former Wilco multi-instrumentalist Leroy Bach set him up with a Colorado gig backing Beth Orton, and he and Bach have both been rehearsing with her this past week for a January 24 appearance on the Letterman show.
Bach and Kelly also started the Boogie Band, a loose outfit that includes Youssefi, performance poet and vocalist Marvin Tate, bassist Matt Lux of Isotope 217, and Tortoise drummer Dan Bitney. Tate and Youssefi occasionally contribute originals, but most of the group’s material is by the likes of Muddy Waters, Bobby Womack, and Bobby “Blue” Bland. “The whole idea is to play dance music,” says Kelly. “To make something for fun and kinda remember why we’re all playing in the first place.”
The Cairo Gang is now a full band again as well, with Bach, drummer Ryan Rapsys of Euphone and Ambulette, and Born Heller bassist Jason Ajemian. In March the first official Cairo Gang single will come out on the New York indie Narnack Records, followed in April by the full-length–some of which was drawn from one of the albums Kelly finished in LA. (He plans to release the other LA disc himself.) Kelly toured in October with Narnack labelmates OCS, and he expects to spend plenty of time on the road in 2006.
That’s not to say he’s still afflicted with his old wanderlust, though. Now that he’s found a home among sympathetic musicians, Kelly seems ready to settle down. “I feel really lucky I ended up here at all,” he says. “I won’t be leaving Chicago anytime soon.”
WHEN: Sun 1/22 and Sun 1/29, 10 PM
WHERE: Big Horse Lounge, 1558 N. Milwaukee
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yvette Marie Dostatni.