By DAVID DUPONT
BG Independent News
JT Nero seems to have his head in the clouds when it comes to bands.
He used to lead a band called JT and the Clouds, and that has morphed into Birds of Chicago.
The music that band produces, though, is firmly rooted on land, an earthy sound that emerges from the fertile soil of the American musical landscape, gospel, folk, country, and more.
And his songs are given voice by Allison Russell, who possesses a voice more than equal to the task of inhabiting the songs’ varied terrains. They’ve dubbed their sound “secular gospel,” and the tag fits. The music is redolent of the spirit and the streets. It has its shadows and foreboding, lightened by moments of joy.
Local music lovers will get a chance to experience the sound when the Birds of Chicago alight at the Black Swamp Arts Festival for two sets on Saturday, Sept. 9. The Chicago-based band will perform at 1:30 p.m. show on the Family Stage before moving over the Main Stage for a 4:30 p.m. set.
Nero said the festival has been on his radar for a number of years. That’s not surprising. Raised in Toledo, he started playing at venues in Bowling Green in the 1990s with The Rivermen. He moved to San Francisco. That’s where he first met Russell, who was based in Vancouver, British Columbia, through mutual friends on the music scene. Russell was working with her band Po’ Girl. After Nero moved to Chicago, they remained in touch. JT and the Clouds would host them in the city hooking them up with venues and sharing the bill.
Nero and Russell are now married, as well as being musical collaborators.
“I really found myself writing more and more songs where I heard Allie’s voice. She’s a singer on a different level. There’s a thrill in writing for her voice,” Nero said.
“We were making more and more excuses to do things together. It wasn’t until 2012 we really had to carve out space and time for our own thing.”
The Birds of Chicago came together with Russell and the core of The Clouds. Nero said though Russell would like to work with Po’ Girl again at some point, “we’re all in on this Birds of Chicago project for the immediate future.”
“From the first time we sang together, we both had a kind of buzzer go off in our brains,” Nero said. “There something particularly compelling about how our voices felt together.” There’s a mystery about what two voices may blend well. “You know it when you hear it.”
And they both hear that special element in their voices. “It’s something that neither of us is interested in turning away from.”
Russell, he said, has the ability to belt with real “bluesy, rock ‘n’ roll muscle” but also to croon with subtlety “and to know instinctively which approach is best.”
They saw “a visceral response” their music. “That galvanized early and it confirmed that our decision as right one.”
The Birds of Chicago have produced three CDs, the most recent “Real Midnight” from last year. There’s another, “Love in Wartime,” in the works for release in 2018. Nero said they’ll perform songs from it at the festival.
Nero, 45, started writing poetry when he was about 20. He finds songwriting best suits his love of economy. “What makes a good song is saying as much as you can with as little as you can,” he said. “That is something I value. The melody and rhythm dictate where the lyrics will go. There’s kind of an almost mystical relationship between melody and rhythm and specific words. There’s a great mystery connected why certain syllables are connected to a melodic phrase.”
As well as singing, Russell adds a variety of instruments including banjo and clarinet, which she started playing after buying one in a pawnshop. Those add more colors with which the band can feather it musical nest.
Birds of Chicago is a collective with various members joining for different gigs.
For the festival, he’ll have two others from Toledo with the band, Nero’s brother Drew Lindsay on keyboards and Dan Obu-Absi on lead guitar. Chris Merrill, who is originally from Columbus, will play bass, and Nick Chambers, from Austin, Texas, is the drummer.
Nero feels its important revisit Northwest Ohio. “It’s where I started playing music.”