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Reviews / Review: US band bring ‘sparkle of hope’

Birds of Chicago's Allison Russell on stage at Mareel. All photos: Dale Smith

ROCK and roll might not save the world, but there is no harm in giving it a chance. With this philosophy behind their new album Love In Wartime, Americana band Birds of Chicago bring a sparkle of hope into the dark days of today’s world, writes Zdenka Mlynarikova.

People of all ages came to enjoy this fantastic full-band show on Sunday night at Mareel, and while the excellent local country/folk musician Arthur Nicholson and his band opened the show and warmed up our ears as he promised, Birds of Chicago warmed up our hearts and had everyone leaving the venue with smiles on their faces.

Fronted by husband-and-wife duo JT Nero and Allison Russell, the band has been praised for their soulful music and described by No Depression magazine as delivering “near perfect Americana” sounds. Since the band’s formation in 2012, they spend 200 nights a year on the road, as they believe their music needs to be experienced live, which couldn’t be more true.

Husband and wife duo JT Nero and Allison Russell.

Their visit to Shetland also marked their last gig on this side of the Atlantic before heading back home to the States. They emphasised the importance of the fact that despite of the recent situation in their country or in the rest of the world, most people have lots of love in their hearts.

Although the tour was in support of their newest album Love in Wartime, which they described as happy and in the style of rock and roll, they also played tunes from their previous release Real Midnight, the album with a slight hint of sadness. Moody country-soul song Barley, written by Allison, was dedicated to her grandmother and to all those who aren’t with us any more. She started singing this song away from the microphones and her wonderful voice stood out and left the whole auditorium in silence. The song even grew in intensity as the whole band joined in.

Support act Arthur Nicholson flanked by Robert Balfour (left) and Chris Thomson (right).

You could see the amazing connection between the couple, both musical and personal, as they sang in harmonies into the same microphone for a while and even manage to squeeze in a little dance. Raspy and velvety, their voices and singing styles are so different and yet, together they produce a surreal sound. As their musical relationship and understanding of each other’s styles progresses, they presented their co-writing debut Try after years of songwriting as individuals.

The couple, as well as the rest of the band, were putting their soul into the performance, clearly enjoying themselves and entertaining the crowd with jokes between the songs. You could spot the difference between any well-played concert and a show where everyone on stage is having a great time playing and feeling every beat of music. Allison, originally from Quebec, was mastering several instruments – clarinet, banjo and ukulele, and her vocals were nothing short of magical. Singing some parts of songs in French even added to their unique style.

Birds of Chicago.

They finished the show with a song from their recently released EP American Flowers, a folk tune with the identical name written by JT Nero. The inspiration for this tune came while he was driving across the United States, meeting kind people who reminded him of restoring the faith in humanity. The EP was also a celebration of couple’s recent relocation to Nashville and involves the contribution of other musicians like Maya de Vitry of The Stray Birds, who played in Shetland last November.

It was amazing to hear how the word is being spread among the musicians about how special they find to perform at Mareel and how warm and welcoming they find the people. Popping up several times was the name of their host Neil Riddell from the Ragged Wood Promotions and his family. The couple felt sad having to leave Shetland the next day and mentioned they would love to come back.

If they do, make sure to keep an eye on tickets as after this breathtaking show, there is no doubt they will be gone very quickly.