Birds of Chicago Take Flight at CSPS
By Lily Allen-Duenas
Photo by Charles “Rain” Black
One woman and three men walked on stage and tuned their instruments. As they got settled, a barefooted woman in a long, flowing dress and feather earrings, Allison Russell, started singing a lilting, sultry, and soulful song with words that melted into each other. Russell’s voice was soon accompanied by a clapped-out rhythm and a lone egg shaker as the rest of the quartet joined in. A crowd of about thirty people gathered at CSPS Legion Arts on an overcast Tuesday evening to watch the Birds of Chicago perform. Beneath the venue’s permanent stage was a temporary, lower stage where the band of Allison Russell (vocals, clarinet, banjo, ukulele), J.T. Nero (vocals, guitar, egg shaker), Christopher Merrill (bass, Porch Board), and Kris Brown (guitar) gathered. This deviation served to further enhance CSPS’ already intimate environment.
The band considers itself a “collective based around J.T. Nero and Allison Russell” that at times tours as a duo or with up to seven other members. This Chicago-based “tribe,” as they sometimes refer to themselves, created an intimate, acoustic show of folk with earthy, bluesy vibes. Their lyrics are thoughtful, intriguing, and explore life, love, and nature. Nero and Russell are married and the addition of daughter Ida Maeve (safely cared for backstage by Merrill’s wife) five months ago has given the duo fresh songwriting inspiration. The couple’s post-baby bliss led them to quickly write several new songs, which they included in the night’s set list despite Nero’s self-imposed quota of “one blissed-out-our-daughter-is-a-miracle” song. Audiences, Nero joked, pay to hear about misery and troubles, not bliss.
Without a drummer, the responsibility fell to the bassist to carry the rhythm. Merrill used a Porch Board, a device that amplifies foot taps to create the rhythm. The concentration on his face was evident throughout the show. Merrill was given moments to shine, and all were met with raucous applause. Brown’s guitar leads met similar approval from the crowd. Russell exhibited exquisite control of her rich voice. Nero’s voice, which carries a bit of a twang, wove around Russell’s like lovers dancing — the two didn’t always join voices, instead splitting singing duties, but when they did, the audiences’ delight was obvious.
Between each song the band elicited laughter from the audience with anecdotes about “building their brand,” trust exercises, and how weather makes people interesting — a theory that Nero, a native Midwesterner, developed after living in California where he claims that no one found him interesting. Russell giggled at every word Nero said, their love plainly evident. Birds of Chicago tour internationally, but luckily their nest is close to Cedar Rapids. When they return, don’t miss out on an extraordinary performance by these talented performers.