With only one previous album to your name, it may seem a little premature to follow up with a live recording. However, this is a bit different. For a start, of the 17 tracks, only four of the songs appear on the debut, so, to all intents and purposes, it’s an album of new material. Well, sort of. Between them, six are drawn from either JT Nero’s previous albums or Allison Russell’s Po’Girl recordings, two of them, ‘Mountains/Forests’ and ‘North Star’, previously appearing on the 2010 JT Nero and the Clouds album on which Russell collaborated. It also marks the second time Russell’s sung ‘Til It’s Gone’ and ‘Prairie Lullaby’ on a live album. Even so, as far as I can tell, that still leaves five previously unrecorded numbers, as well as the ones they’ve not previously performed together. Got that?
Whatever the reasons for the live format (and economics may have had as much to do with it as capturing them in full flow), the result’s what counts and, joined here by a full band (basically, The Clouds), while it may have been recorded in front of a home crowd in the titular Evanston, Illinois club rather than in actual, you know, space, it’s still out of this world.
The set opens with one of those new numbers, Russell taking centre stage for her self-penned gospel, ‘Barley’, a brief piano intro giving way to hand-clap and kick drum accompaniment, before kicking into another new track, Nero’s upbeat alt-country rocking ‘All The City Girls’, he on drawled lead, she providing soaring joyous back-ups. The pace shifts again for the soulful ballad ‘I Have Heard Words’ off Caledonia, turning it into a duet and adding Russell’s melancholic clarinet and providing an early highlight.
From here it’s into a clutch of familiar favourites, the train-chugging shuffle of ‘Sugar Dumplin’’, Russell on uke and singing in French for the Cajun ‘Sans Souci’, jazzy-blues piano and clarinet snaking a gospel tinted ‘Prairie Lullaby’ and, hewing close to the crystal waters feel of the studio original, ‘Mountains/Forests’. That’s certainly not true of ‘Kathy’, the Russell-penned song from Po’ Girl’s Follow Your Bliss album, here transformed from lightly brushed, banjo accompanied folk into piano backed country soul as her voice soars.
I could enumerate the rest of the album track by track, but I reckon you get the picture by now, so I’ll just say the set list also includes ‘Cannonball’, ‘Sparrow’, ‘Funeral’, ‘Nobody Wants To Be Alone’, ‘Nobody Wants To Die’, ‘North Star’, ‘Fever Dream’, a surging take on ‘Trampoline’ and the all-new ‘Firespitter’, starting out like a crooned folk number before transforming into an organ and piano driven bluesy boogie swagger that must have had the floor writhing with shaking hips.
They end as they began, in striking form with a revamp of the Southern gospel coloured ‘‘Til It’s Gone’, Russell singing over jazzed piano and drum before taking up clarinet and Nero weighs in on harmonies and guitar solo. The last thing you hear over the applause is Russell saying thank you to the crowd. No, thank you.
Artist website: www.birdsofchicago.com