By DAVID DUPONT
BG Independent News
Birds of Chicago feel at home
It’s always nice to come home.
That’s the way JT Nero feels about the Birds of Chicago’s return to the Black Swamp Arts Festival.
Nero, who grew up in Toledo, was certainly at home during last year’s show. The Birds even played a set on the Family Stage, just a few feet from Howard’s Club H. Some of his first live shows as a musician were at Howard’s. And it was fun to share it with his wife and musical collaborator Allison Russell. “She had a blast.”
He was quick to credit the festival volunteer personnel for their hospitality. “They take care of you.”
The Birds of Chicago are back to play a primetime Main Stage set at 6:15 p.m., Saturday, followed by a late night set at Stone’s Throw.
Since last year the Americana quintet has released both an EP, “American Flowers,” and a full-length album “Love in Wartime.”
The EP, Nero said, was inspired from growing up in Toledo. The Islamic Center of Toledo serves as a central image in the title track.
“That image is as American as it gets for me,” Nero said.
The album strives to better reflect the Birds of Chicago live show. “We wanted to make a little bit more of a rock ‘n’ roll album. … With all the malaise hanging over the country, we wanted to make something that felt like a joyous document of life on earth. For me a rock ‘n’ roll album is the best way to do that.”
The band will be selling that album in both CD and vinyl. That’s still part of the business model, though, as streaming takes a toll on sales of physical recordings.
“I’m OK streaming as long as people go out and support the band, buying tickets to the show, buying t-shirts. Find a way to support the music.” Nero added: “We have to keep fighting the good fight and taking care that streaming services are more responsible in what they’re paying.”
Still the Birds of Chicago are essentially a live act. Performing at festivals has a particular allure, especially if they get to settle in for a couple days. “Music festivals are where we plug in and see where our peers are at and see as much music as we can.”
The Black Swamp Arts Festival certainly filled that bill. “We had a hell of a time, an amazing time,” he said. “They really curate an interesting slate of bands.”
That’s why he wanted to do what he could to return this year. “Not all festivals are created equal. It takes people who are passionate music fans, but who also have their act together. That’s a somewhat of a rare combination. It is a real gem of a festival.”
Kittel & Co. celebrate string music’s global appeal
The musician who calls himself both a fiddler and a violinist performed at Bowling Green State University in 2011 during his five-year stint with the genre-defying Turtle Island String Quartet. The ensemble was a good fit for a musician who since childhood has been captivated by the range of musical communities in which his instrument had found a home.
“That’s what I was fascinated with early on,” he said in a recent telephone interview. “Those styles were like languages. Getting into those communities and learning those styles was really attractive to me, the way violin or fiddle will find its way in all these different communities around the world.”
That’s the spirit of the quintet of virtuosos that he’ll bring to the Black Swamp Arts Festival Sunday for two sets, one on the Main Stage at 2 p.m. and then closing out the music on the Community Stage at 4.
The quintet –Kittel, violin, Josh Pinkham, mandolin, Quinn Bachand, guitar, Simon Chrisman, hammered dulcimer, and, at Black Swamp, guest Ethan Jodziewicz, bass – will explore the world of string music from Irish, bluegrass, Bach, and a Charlie Chaplin tune. Much of it, Kittel said, will be drawn from the ensemble’s recently released album “Whorls.”
A Michigan native, he was inspired by his older brother to start playing violin, beginning with Suzuki lessons. Though Kittel studied classically, he also stretched his interest to other styles early on. When he attended University of Michigan it was as a jazz major. He then pursued a master’s degree at Manhattan School of Music.
His wide-ranging skills as a classically trained violinist and improvising fiddler in many styles were part of his goal “to make myself the most employable violinist” in the city. That fit with the mission of San Francisco-based Turtle Island for whom he played viola and arranged, including some of the charts on the quartet’s tribute to Jimi Hendrix, “Have You Ever Been…?”
After five years though, he headed back to New York City to focus more on his own work as a composer and violinist.
Kittel & Co. gives him the platform to express both his talents as an instrumentalist and writer.
The Black Swamp Arts Festival with its eclectic mix of acts provides an amenable venue for the group. Kittel & Co.’s Main Stage show will be bookended by Nikki D. and the Browns, a sacred steel gospel band from Toledo, and festival closer the rising blues star Samantha Fish.
“That sounds right up our alley,” Kittel said.
Cordovas: ‘Voices together is a powerful thing’
Joe Firstman’s been around.
Still in his teens, the singer-songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist led a band that opened for national acts. A one-way ticket from North Carolina took the son of an opera singer and professional chess player to Hollywood.
Firstman took the city by storm winning Singer-Songwriter of the Year at the 2001 Los Angeles Music Awards. After touring about, he settled in as the bandleader on the Carson Daly talk show.
Now he’s back in the heartland, moving to Nashville where he brought together Cordovas, a quartet of lead singers and fellow songwriters, whose close harmonies and fluid country-tinged groove evoke California folk-rock while sounding completely contemporary. “I knew I needed a band. I needed to stop being a solo thing,” he said in a recent telephone interview. “I grew up in North Carolina in a family who could sing. People lifting their voices together is a powerful thing.”
That groove and those harmonies form the foundation of the band. “You kind of know you can fix your lyric or your narrative later because you’re already going to fill blanks. You can proceed with arrangement and allow the material to unfold.”
Firstman believes the songwriting by himself and bandmates helps set the band apart. He’s been doing it since he was a kid, composing tunes in his head when he walked to school.
The interview occurred as Cordovas was touring Europe. He feels European audiences give lesser known bands more attention. “People inherently want to know about the cool thing first.”
Back home in the United States, audiences are drawn more to notoriety and star power.
They’ll arrive in Bowling Green having been touring hard for two years and with a new album “That Santa Fe Channel” just out. Cordovas will perform Saturday at 4 p.m. on the Main Stage and then later at Howard’s Club H. Firstman wants the audience to sit back and listen. He’s confident they’ll enjoy what they hear.