The packed crowd who squeezed into the upstairs bar of this well kent Glasgow pub could hardly believe their luck at having the opportunity to see the mighty Birds of Chicago at such close quarters. With all seats taken, several souls sat on the floor while the band, tonight a trio, were packed close into an alcove beside the bar, a handy set up as proclaimed by JT Nero when he asked the barman for a whiskey mid set and it was poured and handed to him. “It’s like a hootenanny,” he said just before a conversation was struck up with the audience regarding which particular brand he was drinking.
This was an extremely informal set up and it served Birds of Chicago well. The interaction with the audience seemed to spur them on and it was probably the most enjoyable set this reviewer has experienced from them so far. Nero and his soul mate, Allison Russell, were joined by noted guitarist and producer, Steve Dawson, who stamped his presence from the start with a wonderfully fluid guitar intro to ‘Real Midnight’. Dawson complements the Birds’ perfectly whether playing sweet slide guitar or an ancient Weissenborn in a lap steel fashion. Russell’s vocals continue to amaze and when joined by her husband Nero’s contrasting voice they sure do make some sweet sounds. ‘Lodestar’ allowed this element to shine perfectly while the song was a perfect balm on a cold and wintry night.
This was the same line up which had played at Glasgow’s Celtic Connections back in January and much of the set list was the same although tonight’s show eclipsed that appearance, due in part perhaps to the close proximity with the audience, perhaps they are now truly road tested. There was more chat with lengthier introductions. Russell, proud of her Scottish inheritance, spoke at length regarding this and of her ancestors removal to Canada to the extent that Nero, who was casually leaning against a wall, eventually reminded her they had a song to play. He also revealed that he had spent time at Edinburgh University and played in their basketball team – a surprising revelation – who knew that Edinburgh Uni had a basketball team?
This was two hours of unalloyed joy as song after song poured from the band. There were the expected renditions of ‘Barley’ and ‘Baton Rouge’ while a thrilling ‘Sans Souci’ was dedicated to their tour manager. Nero introduced ‘American Flowers’ by referring to the tradition of Woody Guthrie and his like and saying that the song is about, “A decent bunch of people being decent towards each other” and referring obliquely to some guy in the White House. A grand song in a grand tradition, the audience joined in on the chorus wholeheartedly, a spine tingling experience.
There were some new elements. Nero sang a new song from a forthcoming solo album quipping, “We’ve realised that we can make a lot of money by releasing a lot of records” while Russell offered us a song she had written and performed on the album she has recorded with her fellow Native Daughters. ‘Quasheba, Quasheba’ follows in the footsteps of her delving into her own family’s background and discovering a lineage going back to this enslaved woman. This was probably the most powerful moment of the night, the song infused with passion and given a foot stomping primal delivery. That the Birds of Chicago can lift you up with their gravity defying soulful songs of love and, at the same time, remind you of the horrors and injustice that have and still exist is just remarkable. They are a remarkable band and those of us who were here tonight can count ourselves blessed. This reviewer is an unabashed fan perhaps but, on this form, there aren’t many bands who have such talent, love and soul in their bones as Birds of Chicago.