Artist: Birds Of Chicago
Venue: The Square Tower
Date: 24th April 2014
Just when you think the standard of the gigs at this magical historic venue can’t get much better, along come Allison Russell, the scion of a Scots mother and Grenadian father, fostered by French Canadians in Montreal, and JT Nero from Chicago and of Irish and Scots descent to prove otherwise.
Their eclectic ethnic background compounded with their exposure to the melting pot of American musical influences, especially Country and Gospel tinged Soul, combined with their sublime vocal talents, has resulted in an intoxicating form of Americana.
An evocative acapella introduction led into ‘Barley’, a Gospel tinged anthem with percussion from Will Waghorn and a hand clap backdrop. Allison’s powerful and quite beautiful soulful timbre is offset perfectly by JT’s higher, more fragile but just as effective vocal, think Neil Young with a touch of Rod Stewart. With Joe Faulhaber on guitar adding a distinctive ringing resonance on some lovely Country style licks and you have a mesmeric cocktail.
A French lyric on ‘Sans Souci’ brought a Gallic flavour to the proceedings before Allison, the proud mother, enchanted the packed house with the story of the birth of her 4 month old daughter in the chill of the worst winter in the Mid-West for 200 years. Actually accompanying them on tour, the baby cries from the room above had the besotted crowd eating out of her hand. With Allison also adding clarinet, banjo, ukulele and guitar skills to the varied and dynamic arrangements on their totally original material, this was a fine treat indeed.
Learning that they were due to record a session for the BBC on the following day came as no surprise. Check out that session here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01xz3wx
JT’s paean to the climate variation in the ‘Seasons’ preceded a soft and catchy ‘Mountains/Forests’ with a catchy refrain about electric Sea Horses and a compelling Country Rock riff. Another gorgeous unaccompanied lullaby-like intro on ‘Sparrow’ built in almost operatic intensity to complete a vibrant first set.
Sales of their new live CD were selling like hot cakes during the interval, and the second set lived up to expectations starting with a tribute to Elizabeth Cotten, the writer of the classic ‘Freight Train’ providentially rediscovered by Pete Seeger.
Scintillating guitar work and effortless vocal power, with touches of light and shade provided by the changes in musical accompaniment, continued to delight throughout leaving an indelible imprint on this first ever visit to the UK.
Most appropriately, given our preoccupation with the vagaries of the UK climate, a song derived from the grandiose epithets, such as “Polar Vortex” coined by US 24 hour weather channels, preceded a rousing Gospel finale. Also entirely apt was the beautiful acapella Gospel encore dedicated to their baby daughter which further enchanted an already spell bound audience.
CDs continued to fly from the merchandising stand and we can only hope that the unique, delightful blend that is the Birds of Chicago will return next year by popular request.
“Last night was stunning. Top work by Square Roots to bring them to Portsmouth. I think they enjoyed it as much as the audience did – and that was lots!” (David Jordan)
“What a fantastic night at the Square Tower last night. An immaculate show which set the castle (sorry, the Tower!) on fire. A night to remember!” (Lynton Brown)
“Great evening. Fantastic sounds. You just can’t beat live music…” (Adrian Clabburn)
“Fantastic! Top class!” (Brian Hanson)
“A fabulous gig. Alison Russell’s fearless vocals and cracking musicianship from husband JT Nero and the band made for a superb musical experience.” (Dan Ogus)
“Beguiling and beautiful, fractured but wholesome, and such a wonderful rapport with an audience – catch them if you can!” (Ruby Tiger)
(Photographs and video by kind permission of Donna Brown and Birds Of Chicago)