Long time AUK favourites Birds Of Chicago flew into Glasgow as Celtic Connections was nearing the end of its run. With core members, Allison Russell and JT Nero accompanied by the acclaimed producer and wizard guitar player Steve Dawson, the trio’s show was heart-warming and uplifting. Russell and Nero are a delight to see and hear. Their chalk and cheese voices (hers sweet and melodious, his, a sandpapered drawl) combine wonderfully with a definite sense of soul in its essence while the songs flow wonderfully with elements of bluegrass, folk, Celtic and Gospel all entwined.
Dawson played some sweet slide guitar on the intro to the opening song ‘Sweet Midnight’ before the duo’s signature harmonies burst from the stage with the song then seguing into a magnificent rendition of ‘Lodestar’, a sublime song which really showcases their voices in tandem and which tonight was given an excellent delivery with Dawson’s guitar sparkling throughout driving the song home. Two songs in and this was already shaping to be an awesome night but when they sang ‘Try’, an opportunity for Russell to really stretch her vocal muscles while Nero snarled out his, they really took flight with the song sounding like an update to Otis Redding’s ‘Try A Little Tenderness’. Add to this a scintillating guitar solo from Dawson and then a vocal harmony tour de force as the song drew to a close and we were close to heaven as far as this audience was concerned. And in case any reader thinks that here, this reviewer is beginning to gush, you really had to be there as the packed crowd were mesmerised by the music, the love and good vibes coming from the stage.
Love and good vibes? Well, ‘Love In Wartime’, their latest album, is a staunchly positive album which obliquely challenges the new world order we find ourselves in and the power of love and of song was mentioned by Nero as they played ‘Superlover’ and then the title song from the album. With these songs flowing sweetly from the stage it was hard not to feel emotional and when they sang the more direct protest of ‘American Flowers’, a song in the Woody Guthrie tradition, the audience joined in the chorus with some gusto as the trio gathered at the stage lip in an intimate embrace with the entranced audience.
There was so much to enjoy in the show. Dawson played a blinder throughout whether on slide or fuzzed up guitar along with some excellent lap steel playing on an ancient looking Weissenborn. Russell was a force of nature on the stirring ‘Barley’, a song which strides across the Atlantic recalling as it does Hibernian roots and the days of slavery. Nero was a hoot at times with his wry comments congratulating the audience on their timing after they clapped along with ‘Flying Dreams’ while he conjured up some back stage drama as he pointed out that his black velvet shirt clashed with a dress worn by a member of the support act.
Ultimately it’s hard to argue with the likes of ‘Cannonball’, a song inspired by the duality of their old Chicago neighbourhood, Humboldt Park, which comes across like a soul infused John Sebastian number, and the closing song, ‘Baton Rouge’, a hymn to a town not far from Nero’s native city which featured an intriguing clarinet and guitar duet and again some glorious harmonies. Birds Of Chicago have the songs, the voices and the personality to win over the world if only enough people heard them.
There was quite a contrast when Salthouse opened the night with their beguiling blend of folky ballads and Celtic drones. With harmonium, fiddle and guitar they delved into the mists on the traditional ‘Turn Ye To Me’ while there was a nod to Rabbie Burns on the ancient sounding ‘Charmed’. Jenny Sturgeon was in charge of the harmonium which breathed almost asthmatically while Lauren MacColl (she of the black velvet dress) played some fine fiddle. While Sturgeon was the primary singer, guitarist Ewan MacPherson sang the nimble ‘Lay Your Dark Low’, a song which recalled many sixties folk troubadours but overall the band came across like a billowing haar blowing in from the seas, full of mystery and portent.