Birds of Chicago may perch in Chicago, but their address is really on the road; they tour hard across North America over half the year. Their immediate itinerary includes a Saturday night slot opening for the Dustbowl Revival’s album release show at Teragram Ballroom, and a Live Oak Festival debut in Santa Barbara the next day.
Fronted by clarinet- and banjo-playing Allison Russell and guitarist JT Nero — she of Po’ Girl, he of JT & the Clouds — the Birds were the last band recorded at producer Joe Henry’s celebrated Garfield House studio in South Pasadena. The widely acclaimed result was last year’s “Real Midnight,” which refined their rootsy, soul- and gospel-steeped sound and nudged Russell to the forefront. Her vocal timbre has toughened since her Po’ Girl days; she manages to be quivering and earthy at once, and when she soars up to top notes with full vibrato, it’s like she’s testifying in church.
Their songs, mostly written by the impressively prolific Nero (previously known as Jeremy Lindsay), dig deep into the fertile veins of gospel, soul and old-time folk music. They have another album in the can — “Love in Wartime,” co-produced by North Mississippi Allstars guitarist Luther Dickinson — and recently recorded an acoustic EP in Nashville called “American Flowers.” Hopefully they will perform the loose, jammy “Alright, Alright” Saturday night, as well as “Rise From the Ruins,” their rousing contribution to the recently issued “Treasure of the Broken Land: The Songs of Mark Heard.”
The harmonious chemistry between Russell’s soulful depth and Nero’s husky grit is what warms and centers their music, whether the wife-and-husband team are playing as a duo or with the full “family band.” It enhances the emotional scope and urgency of songs like the impassioned “Super Lover” and the title track from last year’s album:
“Real midnight’s gonna come
Yeah, that’s all right
We will be as the stars
And put holes in the night
In 10,000 years
They’ll see our love shine
In the light on the banks
Lookin’ up through the pines”
Hearing their voices wrap around one another in mutual affirmation on the recording is entrancing. In live performance, the combination of those harmonies and Nero’s romantic poetry raises chillbumps.
Birds of Chicago open for the Dustbowl Revival’s album release show at Teragram Ballroom, 1234 W. 7th St., Downtown LA, 8 p.m. Saturday, June 17; $20. Info: (213) 689-9100. Birdsofchicago.com, teragramballroom.com