AUK’s Chain Gang: Birds Of Chicago “Love In Wartime”

In the last article in the Chain Gang series, Andrew Frolish mused on Sufjan Stevens’ ‘John Wayne Gorcy Jr’ from Stevens’ 2005 album ‘Illinois’ and that got me thinking, not about other songs about serial killers but links to the state’s biggest city, Chicago. Maybe I could write about Chicago blues, a genre of music I’m a big fan of but that’s not strictly americana. Then I wondered if I could write an article about Chicago one of my all-time favourite bands (bit of a guilty pleasure) but they’re certainly not americana! Then I trawled through some of my albums and came across a band I really like – Birds Of Chicago who definitely are americana!

Formed in 2012, there are just two ‘birds’ in the band, husband and wife team,  JT Nero and Allison Russell. Russell is probably the best known of the two as she was originally in the highly regarded Po’ Girl (with Trish Klein of The Be Good Tanyas) and recently has been part of Our Native Daughters with Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah and Leyla McCalla whose debut ‘Songs Of Our Native Daughters’ is the highly acclaimed concept album that addresses issues such as slavery, racism and sexism.

Birds Of Chicago have released three studio albums, ‘Birds Of Chicago’ (2012), ‘Real Midnight’ (2016) (produced by legendary producer Joe Henry) and ‘Love In Wartime’ (2018), (co-produced by Nero and Luther Dickenson), one live album ‘Live From Space’ (2013) and a six track EP ‘American Flowers’ (2017) all of which are superb. Nero is the main songwriter and his melodies and lyrics are excellent. Russell has co-written a number of songs with him but Nero (real name Jeremy Lindsay) sees her as his song writing muse and it’s her delightful banjo playing (amongst other instruments), lead and harmony vocals that help give the duo its unique sound.

As well as producing superb, recorded music all of which is worth a listen, they’re also excellent live. I was lucky enough to see them at Oslo (the venue in Hackney – not the city in Norway) in 2019 which was a real treat. However, I’m not sure when they’ll be touring the UK again (and that’s nothing to do with covid for a change) as the duo announced in February 2021 that they were going on “indefinite hiatus” in order for Russell to focus on her solo album ‘Outside Child’ which is also definitely well worth a listen.

If I had to pick a favourite track of theirs, it would be ‘Love In Wartime’ from the album of the same name. It starts wistfully before Nero comes in with the vocals before he’s joined by Russell on a high harmony before she goes solo on the second verse. The song then builds into the chorus with Russell giving the sound another layer with an almost gospel feel to her deep background harmony leading into an excellent guitar solo from Nero. The love song’s lyrics are slightly mystical and mysterious with some delightful lines such as “Morning dew on the petal, stem up from the kettle”, “We are the whispers in the dark when the night comes round” and there’s even a mention of the Duke of Earl!

Hopefully they’ll be able to fit in another Birds Of Chicago album in the not-too-distant future and they’ll be able to find some space in between their other projects – it would be a shame for their many fans if they were unable to hear any more of the duo’s distinctive ‘secular gospel’ music either recorded or live.

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Mike Hodgson

I was lucky enough to see the Birds at Cambridge Folk Festival a couple of years back. I have to say they were simply wonderful. It was one of the best live gigs I’ve seen. Memorable.