The road works and long diversions conspiracy almost robbed us of the chance, but in the end tickets were grabbed from the ticket office, and a rapid relocation to Stage 2 enabled entry just as Birds of Chicago embarked on the first song of the evening. And there, crammed onto Stage 2’s small stage, was what can be only called a beautiful band – whilst there is a fine rhythm section and some splendid lead / slide guitar backing the focus naturally falls on the duo upfront. Main songwriter JT Nero, resplendently coiffured and generously tall and possessor of just the right kind of rasping weather-beaten vocal and the elegant Allison Russell equipped, with similar generosity, with banjo, ukulele, clarinet and the voice of an angel.
Birds of Chicago are unarguably an Americana band – much as we sometimes struggle to define what Americana is there are times when one can just say “I know it when I see it”, and tonight it can be both seen and heard. There are elements of folk, but this isn’t folk. There may be a country twang in the lead guitar, but this is quite assuredly not country. There’s more than a hint of funkiness in the mix of electric instruments alongside acoustic guitar and banjo, the ramshackle tumbling of words when JT Nero sings, the gloriously rich and soulful singing of Allison Russell. Put this blend together and you have Americana. Not all Americana – this isn’t Wilco – but certainly a clear cleaving to the part of the musical strand that includes the likes of The Felice Brothers. That’s the definitions part of the review over – Birds of Chicago, Americana, big tick.
The set list for the two 45 minutes sets was heavily influenced by the recent release of a new album – the excellent ‘Love in Wartime’, although there were plenty of songs which went “way back” all the way to 2012, before Nero & Russell were married and also preceding the birth of their daughter. Allison Russell’s comment that “we’ve been busy” was no understatement, Birds of Chicago also released in 2017 an album, ‘American Flowers’, of “snapshot recordings” – mostly second takes of songs that didn’t quite make the cut for ‘Love in Wartime’ but which they still wanted to get out there one way or another. ‘Roll Away’ is a vibrant number – finger-snapping groovy, with a light fingered appropriation of a Townes Van Zandt lyric – it’s also, like many other of the evening’s songs, stretched out in an easy and highly satisfying way. It’s a groove, for sure. The multi-lingual ‘Baton Rouge’ is a swampy ballad that is somewhere between love song to the city and a lament, the latter only emphasized by Allison Russell’s mournful clarinet coda. ‘Remember Wild Horses’ trips and shuffles through scenes of heartbreak, Nero and Russell’s voices such a perfect counterpoint to each other. The heartbreaking ‘Superlover’ embodies all the better hopes one would like to feel capable of, truly a manifesto for living. ‘Travellers’ is an autobiography of band life on the road – and the changes that are visible when the journey takes one around an old route again. In a very folk process way there’s again a few appropriated lines, but the writing is so crisp that the casualness of it all seems almost improvised – but it’s a song full of passion “I feel caverns underneath my feet / Rivers dark and rivers fleet / So I roll and so I wind / I slip and I weave and I duck and I dive” sings Russell before capping it with “That’s all”.
Closing the evening with ‘American Flowers’ – a song of reconciliation which says that even in the turmoil and hard-divides currently rife in the USA most people are actually good people, given the chance to be, brings on a final beautiful moment. Having taught us the chorus, and encouraging a little joining in, JT and Allison took the music off the stage for a fully acoustic moment. I’m sure the good people at The Stables wouldn’t have appreciated a bonfire, but it was a real campfire moment nonetheless and the perfect end to what had been exquisitely beautiful and thoughtful and just… an all round superb evening. Birds of Chicago – on tour, back for the Cambridge folk festival, catch them in full flight, you won’t regret it.