"Most people in my country are good people, we travel every State and see kindness in them all," J.T.Nero informs us, to great applause, leading in to American Flowers,the title track of Birds of Chicago EP recorded in 2017. (I have seen American flowers all across this land, from the banks of the Shenandoah, along the Rio Grande, do not fear the winter blowing in the hearts of men, I have seen American flowers they will bloom again).
It’s the final chorus from the final song performed by Birds of Chicago and as had been the case on their last visit to Ireland barely twelve weeks ago, with the audience joining in, the words echo around the room. It follows what has been an extraordinary evening’s entertainment which kicked off two and a half hours previously with the support slot by The Remedy Club.
Regardless of their talents, performers can only do so much to create the perfect show. The additional ingredient to add that spark to a gig, is an engaging and appreciative audience and tonight certainly hit a high spot both on and off stage. A large crowd was already in attendance when The Remedy Club opened their slot with I Miss You, the opening track from their super album Legends, Lovers & Lost Causes. Long time favourites of Lonesome Highway, the husband and wife duo Aileen Mythen and KJ McEvoy’s performances over the past twelve months have gone from strength to strength and their self-assurance this evening was evident, no doubt buoyed by the positive reaction of the audience from the outset. After four songs from their forty minute set a call came from the back of the room of ‘who are you?’ Their set was going down so well that they neglected to introduce themselves from stage! Performing as a duo, they have the ability to create a ‘band’ effect, with Mc Evoys splendid guitar playing complimented Mythen’s rhythmic percussion. However, their tour de force are their harmonies, Mythen’s ability to vary her vocal range from honey sweet to seductive blues competing with Mc Evoy’s baritone crooning.
Concentrating on material from the album they play When Tom Waits Up (the ‘legends’ in the album title inspired by Tom Waits we’re told), a rocking Big Ol’ Fancy, the more mellow Last Song. They encore with a killer delivery of the bluesy Image On My Retina (a song recorded in their previous life as B & the Honeyboy), highlighting this accomplished duo’s ability to rock out with belting vocals and a ripping guitar solo. I can hardly recall the last occasion I witnessed a support act get as rapturous a reception at Whelan’s, further evidence that all the Remedy Club require is exposure, to swiftly move on to a much higher level in the music industry. Equally impressive is the sight of Birds of Chicago’s Allison Russell dancing in the corner to their set, accompanied by her husband J.T.Nero, a lovely touch.
Unlike their performances at Kilkenny Roots in May, where they included bass and drums in their line up, this time around Allison Russell and J.T.Nero are joined on stage by Steve Dawson, one of the most accomplished and sought after guitar players presently residing in Nashville. A producer, session player and recording artist in his own right, coincidentally Lonesome Highway had posted a review of his latest album a few days previously. Having only arrived from Nashville to Whelan’s in time for the sound check a few hours earlier, due to a re-scheduled flight and despite the jet lag, he opens The Birds of Chicago set onstage alone, effecting some gorgeous swirling slide guitar, to be eventually joined on stage by Russell for a haunting delivery of She Moved Through The Fair. What follows is a one hour and forty minutes set which revisits their earlier albums, includes material from their recent release Love in Wartime and a recently written song. Alright, Alright, from their self-titled debut album is introduced by Nero as the most hopeful song they’ve ever written andFlyingDreamsfrom the same album is described as "a song written in the innocent summer of 2012."
Notwithstanding the heavenly vocal contributions by both Russell and Nero, the musicianship on display is breath-taking, with Russell playing banjo, clarinet and ukulele, Nero on acoustic guitar and Dawson effortlessly switching from acoustic to electric guitar. A recently written song for their four year old daughter titled You Are Not Alone is introduced by Russell, adding how much she is missing her already. Nero adds the male perspective by retorting "much and all as I adore my daughter, I’m looking forward to my coffee in the morning and wine in the late afternoon, undisturbed and accompanied by reading something or other!" Canonball is mooted by Nero as a song written about the positives and negatives of living in Canada before they perform two songs from the current album, Superlover (adorned by splendid slide guitar by Dawson) and the title track Love In Wartime.Nero then leaves the stage to allow the remaining duo deliver Stardust, with choruses sung by Russell in both English and French. Inspired by her Scottish grandmother, Barley is delivered solo by Russell with hand claps from the audience before they end the set with Real Midnight, a request from the floor and Suger Dumplin’. A further encore was demanded and swiftly delivered with the aforementioned American Flowers. A completely different set list than their Kilkenny Gigs, the three piece more acoustic arrangement is tailored made for the more intimate setting of the Upstairs Room at Whelan’s where, as usual, the sound quality is crystal clear.
Having just arrived from The States mid-morning, whisked out to RTE for an appearance on The Ray Darcy Show and straight to Whelan’s for the show, they apologised for any jet lag and sleep deprivation induced verbal nonsense that they indulged in. No apologies required, from the standing ovations and the general feel-good atmosphere at the gig, the evening could only be described as a triumph.
Review and photography by Declan Culliton
Birds of Chicago. Cleere’s Bar, Kilkenny. Saturday 28thJuly 2018.
Continuing on their short Irish tour, these beautiful Birds flew from Dublin down the motorway to the medieval city of Kilkenny to land at that infamous venue that is Cleere’s Bar. Always guaranteed a great welcome, the trio of musicians begin their stirring set with Real Midnight, ironically the song that was an audience request late into the Dublin show on the night before…
The atmosphere really started to take off as the experience of seeing this gifted band in a live setting took hold of the appreciative crowd. The new release, Love In Wartime, is given plenty of focus with Superlover, Roll Away, Baton Rouge and the title track itself going down a storm as JT Nero on acoustic guitar and Steve Dawson on acoustic and electric guitars weave around the irrepressible stage performance and talent of Allison Russell. Her passionate and soulful vocal delivery is something to behold in such an intimate setting and she sings with utter conviction in delivering a performance that includes her excellent musicianship on banjo, ukulele and clarinet.
Flying Dreams and Cannonball are both typical of the celebratory nature of the sounds and music on display and when the band bring things down a notch we are treated to You Are Not Alone, a song written for JT and Alison’s daughter. Barley is another superb song that shows the power and tenderness in Allison’s vocals as she builds the tempo with audience handclaps and brings everything to a climax that resembles something akin to a revivalist prayer meeting.
The delicate Etoile d’Amour (Stardust) is a lovely performance between Steve and Allison as they tease out the melody and dynamic of the song. Ending the set with American Flowers has become something of a favourite these days and the audience participation in the chorus is very much in keeping with the spirit of fellowship that has been a key component of the warmth generated by this night. Birds of Chicago are sublime in their performance and their live show is quite intoxicating
Kilkenny review by Paul McGee