Concert preview: Birds of Chicago make life on the road a family affair

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Few musicians truly enjoy life on the road for extended stretches - especially when they're new parents. For husband and wife musicians JT Nero (nee Jeremy Lindsay) and Allison Russell, founding members of the Chicago-based roots band Birds of Chicago, though, there's no place they would rather be.

"The road tends to be our most natural habitat," Nero said from a hotel stop near Rapid City, South Dakota.

Since last winter, they've driven their family van across the U.S. and Canada - with their infant daughter, Ida Maeve, along for the ride - playing their self-described "rock and roll poetry" in clubs and concert halls.

On Friday, Oct. 10, they'll perform at the Columbus Performing Arts Center as part of the Six String Concerts acoustic music series.

"We're excited to be back in Ohio and to do our first proper show in Columbus," said Nero, a Toledo native, adding that as a student at Kenyon College in the early '90s, he cut his musical teeth in the Columbus bar scene.

Birds of Chicago bass player Chris Merrill is from Columbus - he graduated from Centennial High School and the Ft. Hayes music program in 1997 - and has promised to serve as unofficial tour guide while the band is in town.

"One of the things that brought Alli and I together was…that we are [among] a very small sector of people in the world who don't think it's crazy to be on the road 10 months of the year," he said with a laugh. "Since Ida has come along (she was born in December 2013), there are of course challenges to being on the road, but the challenges are more along the lines of the challenges that any first-time parents face. You're pretty much hanging around just trying to figure things out on the fly."

The band has been lauded for its poetic lyrics and harmonies, and a sound steeped in Americana, country, soul and bluegrass-flavored rock. Multi-instrumentalists, Nero plays guitar and percussion while Russell plays clarinet, banjo, ukulele and guitar.

Nero and Russell, who wed in July 2013, have spent much of the last decade touring to promote their separate bands (Nero's JT & the Clouds and Russell's Po' Girl), and Birds of Chicago, a rotating collective of musicians built around the couple, who first met through overlapping music circles in the early 2000s. At the time, Nero was living in San Francisco and Russell lived in Vancouver, but they were, he said, "mutual fans of each other" and collaborated over the years, and ultimately, fell in love.

"In 2012, we were finally able to put aside our other projects and launch Birds of Chicago," he said. And they've been flying strong since. The band released a self-titled album at the end of 2012 (with help from a Kickstarter campaign), and a follow-up - January 2014's Livefrom Space - that was recorded live in Chicago.

A new Birds of Chicago album is also in the works and expected to be released in fall 2015. But they still prefer the thrill of performing live to time spent in the studio.

Playing live music "is kind of a drug for me," Nero said. "We try to keep things very intimate and un-precious... A good show should take you through the whole grizzly spectrum of human emotions. There's bitterness, there's hope, there's laughs, and you should get choked up a couple of times."

Shedd Theater

8 p.m., Friday, Oct. 10

549 Franklin Ave., Columbus