These Birds are taking off: Birds of Chicago comes to Sings Like Hell

 JT Nero and Allison Russell are the couple at the heart of the Birds of Chicago collective. Courtesy photo

JT Nero and Allison Russell are the couple at the heart of the Birds of Chicago collective.
Courtesy photo

Birds of Chicago delve into that ever-widening genre called Americana, and bring out something both soulful and sweet, smooth and raw. Just like the big city of Chicago turned traveling bluesmen into electric nightclub entertainers in the ’50s, the Birds of Chicago are set to change what can be done in the genre that has tended to the too-folksy side in recent years. They’re a smokin’ hot live band, to be proved Sunday, when they play as part of Sings Like Hell’s current series.

The band came together when Chicago-based JT Nero, of JT and the Clouds, and Montreal-based Allison Russell of Po’Girl joined forces romantically and artistically. After touring on and off with each other, and hiding their relationship from the rest of the touring musicians, they finally combined their songwriting, their arranging and their voices. Their self-titled debut came out in 2012, followed by a live album in 2013, bolstered by constant touring.

“We were mutual fans of each other,” Mr. Nero says. But it was a late-night jam at a music conference in 2005 where it really started. Allison sang one of JT’s songs with him and “a bell went off in my head. There was just something in the vocal blend, a spark there. It stayed in the back of my head and we progressively made more excuses to work together.”

“We don’t write together,” Ms. Russell says. “But I’ll write for his voice, or he’ll write for mine. We haven’t done that trade-a-song, back-and-forth. We’ll have the bones of the song first before we bring it to each other.”

Ms. Russell grew up in a household filled with music, but only music from the 19th century. Her parents listened to classical music and traditional folk ballads, and she remembers getting in trouble when an aunt sent her a tape of modern singer-songwriters. However, that folk background has made her well versed in the past. JT has been helping to catch her up with the more modern sounds, and the close-knit Americana scene has also brought her into today. (Their current obsession is the Barr Brothers.)

“I was more of an ’80s kid,” says Mr. Nero, talking about a teenage life spent listening to hip-hop. That was his punk, he said.

As for “Americana” as a term, Mr. Nero says “it’s just another way of saying ‘roots, rock, and roll’. . . it’s anything goes. We’re throwing all of this in the pressure cooker and seeing what comes out . . . If you’re going to use an Americana umbrella, then I’m going to use the widest one.”

The band just agreed to record the next album with Joe Henry, who engineered the comeback albums of soul music legend Solomon Burke and Bettye LaVette.

Not only do Mr. Nero and Ms. Russell manage to make a marriage work on the road, but they tour while raising 10-month-old child, Ida. They’re not the only members of the band married. Their bass player is married to their tour manager, who looks after Ida when the band goes on stage. (For those with young children, don’t get annoyed; their child sleeps solidly post-gig, a full eight hours.)

“It’s all she knows, as we’ve been on the road since she was four weeks old,” Mr. Nero says. “Humans are very adaptable organisms as you know. When you are a first-time parent, you’re getting your ass kicked every day regardless. You’ve got to figure it out as you go. So we may as well be doing the things we know the best, and for us that’s the touring life.”

Birds of Chicago
When: 8 p.m. Sunday
Where: Lobero Theatre, 33 E. Canon Perdido St.
Cost: $34
Information:, (805) 963-0761

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