Birds of Chicago play The Ark in Ann Arbor

The Ark in Ann Arbor has a long-standing tradition of hosting excellent acoustic music shows, and the Birds of Chicago on Thursday night was no exception.

They were bright with high spirits and their music was impressively multi-dimensional, a mix of indie and folk music with a sprinkling of soul. On the other hand, I was a little disappointed with the opening act, Chicago Farmer.

I was disappointed with Chicago Farmer from the moment he walked onstage. Just a man with a guitar and a harmonica, which seems to be the ubiquitous singer-songwriter set-up. It’s gotten boring. Then he opened his mouth and spoke with a drawl, a drawl that he is very aware of and even makes fun of in his music. His ability to make fun, and in fact be highly comedic, was the only thing that saved him from his harsh guitar picking and repetitive chords and lyrics. If he were presented as a comedian who sang a little, I would have enjoyed his portion of the show.

Birds of Chicago were light-years away, musically speaking. JT Nero and Allison Russell make up the core duo of this band, providing a combination of rugged vocals and guitar on Nero’s part, with Russell providing shimmering harmonies along with some ukulele and clarinet.

Birds of Chicago displays the intensity that comes from digging into the music with absolute delight, and making it more vibrant in live performance than it is on a recording. The musicians from JT and the Clouds added their own sparkle with a piano lick here and a guitar line there, a percussion kick or a bass solo.

One of the things that was remarkable about this performance was that Allison Russell was 36 weeks pregnant. Her singing was resplendent with silvery tones that created incredible depth of texture when added to Nero’s.

The music they’ve written is rife with images both lovely and unlovely. The city of Chicago is referenced frequently, along with the idea that the world is both good and bad at once. Nero and Russell’s voices, neither of them classically trained but instead distinctive and full of character, make the lyrics come to life.

Birds of Chicago releases a live album in December. I, for one, will be checking it out. If the recording does the live show justice, I expect it will be an excellent album


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