Tag Archives: Allison Russell

(Not Quite a) Concert Review: Birds of Chicago 6/27/13



The following post was originally a status update on my personal Facebook page concerning my excitement about the Birds of Chicago concert I attended the night before. The more detailed the update became, the more it sounded like a concert review. What’s missing, of course, is specifics about the band’s song choices that evening, among other things. As stated in the entry, however, the gig was recorded for a live album that will tentatively be released in August or September. Besides a few minor changes, I decided to leave the rambling mostly intact. Hopefully there is enough meat on the bone to whet your appetite and pique your interest in some incredibly talented artists. Without further adieu…..

Still flying high from the Birds of Chicago show we attended last night! I would say it was the perfect evening, but it didn’t quite start out that way.

Our journey started in a van that lost its AC a few days prior. We thought, “no big deal, windows down, we’ve got this!” That was until we had been on the road for an hour and it began to rain.  Experiencing precipitation sixty minutes into a seventy-four mile trip would normally not be an issue either except our excursion took three hours due to heavy traffic. With little ventilation and a lot of humidity, we had to leave the windows at least partially down. That might explain why you received a damp hug, Mahra. 🙂 Again, getting a little rain-soaked wasn’t anything to fret about. We would dry off eventually and it actually felt kind of nice when a strong gust of wind made its way through the vehicle.

The greatest difficulty we endured was my rising anxiety as the hours continued to pass and I thought for sure we would get lousy seats due to arriving well after the doors opened. I kept telling myself that Evanston SPACE is one of the best venues to attend a concert and even the worst seat is not too far away from the stage. While this is one hundred percent true, I REALLY wanted to be as close to the action as possible. It should be noted that SPACE offers reserved tables in addition to the general admission seats we had purchased, so there are guaranteed seating options.

We finally arrived around thirty minutes before the show started. I dropped my wife off in front of the venue while I parked the van a few blocks away (YAY, FREE PARKING!). Since we got there fairly close to starting time, I had to park a little farther away than my previous trips to SPACE. So I called the Mrs. to let her know why I was delayed, as I briskly made my way to the concert hall. When she answered I could tell by the giddiness in her voice that she had something exciting to share. I thought maybe she ran into my friend Mahra, talked to the band or something to that effect. Nope! Despite our tardiness she was able to secure two front row seats with a perfect view of the entire stage!

The same building that houses SPACE also has an excellent Italian joint named Union Pizzeria. From our previous outings we started the tradition of ordering a pizza and dining before the show. SPACE allows you to bring the pie over to their half of the building and partake in it, which makes for a spectacular opening act before the headliners grace the stage. After we gobbled down some sausage and pepperoni goodness that was out of this world (Get it? We were at SPACE? *THUD!*), we had a brief encounter with Mahra, whom I hadn’t seen for almost a year. In fact, that fateful evening in 2012 was not only our initial introduction to one another but also marked the first time either one of us had seen Birds of Chicago, at that very same location.

At last, it was time for the band to take the stage. Although they have played gigs as a duo,  multi-instrumentalists JT Nero and Ali Russell chose to include a flock of seven other gifted musicians, as this was a very special occasion: their first live recording for an album to be released later this summer or early fall. Adding to the festivities was the couple’s recent announcement that they are tying the knot on July 6 and expecting a baby bird in December!

As was the case the previous time I saw them, BoC reached into my soul and caressed it with songs about love, hope and strong affections for their adopted Windy City. Their sound is not easily labeled but the following excerpt from the band biography is a nice starting point: “Nero’s fractured country-soul voice wrapped in Russell’s silver and gold tones is a fine thing. Not too perfect, not at all saccharine, you’ll hear echoes of mountain gospel, street corner doo-wop, classic soul. Accompanied by just a banjo and a guitar, it’s chilling. Fired by a full band, it’s a full tilt revival.”

What’s not included in that description is the chemistry and playful banter that I had previously only witnessed between other musician-couples such as Karin Bergquist and Linford Detweiler of Over the Rhine. There’s a lot to be said for the unique bond that a husband and wife act have, not only with each other, but the way that union enhances their relationship with the audience. No longer does it feel like there’s the band on one side of the room and the fans on the other, divided by an invisible, albeit see-through wall. Instead it feels like a gathering of like-minded friends who love spending the evening together. Of course an intimate venue like SPACE lends itself to such dynamics, though it also takes a willingness on the band’s behalf to bridge the gap that would ordinarily exist.

After treating the crowd to two long sets and a two-song encore, the Birds had meaningful conversations with all of the people who hung around afterward. Just like the care in which they approach their craft, JT and Ali (and really the entire backing band, which includes Nero’s brother Drew) took time to genuinely connect with anyone who approached them. Again, it was not an “OMG, I met the band” groupie situation, but instead an interaction between individuals who share a common, passionate interest.

While waiting to talk to Ali and JT we had another opportunity to speak with Mahra, at which time she graciously offered to take our picture with BoC. To say the couple are tremendously humble and kind is an understatement. They were as happy to see us as we were them and expressed their appreciation many times over. I asked them to sign the setlist I snagged from the piano, which they were glad to do. I also had JT sign a couple of CDs we purchased too. I know those actions scream “GROUPIE!” but trust me, it just isn’t like that.

Thankfully our drive home was much shorter than our earlier travels and contained a limited amount of rain. All we could talk about the whole time was how extraordinary the evening turned out to be and our love for Birds of Chicago.

In closing, I would be remiss if I didn’t explain that my worries about getting to the concert on time had started to melt away the moment we arrived. As I sat down next to the love of my life, much of the burden was lifted. It was completely gone by the time the band took the stage.

I also realized that although I mostly kept my composure in check, I was making a big deal over nothing. Whether we were ten feet from the stage or one hundred, I was very fortunate to be amongst friends (ones I was acquainted with and many I wasn’t), with a woman I adore, at a venue I love, witnessing a magical event only a select few were able to attend. That was something that traffic, rain, lack of air conditioning and anxiety couldn’t take from me. A perfect evening indeed!