Long days, changing scenery, crisscrossing the country with a concert at the end of each day's journey. This isn't your typical road trip; this is the lifestyle of Birds of Chicago, a wife and husband duo who are the foundation of the acclaimed midwestern quintet. They're sharing a tour with not only their bandmates, but their three-year-old daughter, Ida. Birds of Chicago played 180 shows last year and spent 220 days on the road, so it's safe to say that most of their child rearing is done in their 15-passenger Chevy van.
"When you're a first-time parent, you're really just hanging on for dear life and figuring things out each day," begins JT Nero. "And that would be true if we were at home or on the road. But the rhythm for us has always been a traveling life, so when we brought a new human into the mix, it made sense for her to join in that rhythm." Changing diapers on the road may be grueling, but Nero points out, "We get to be together, and that's the main thing. Ida's been touring since she was four weeks old; she's a seasoned vet," he adds, laughing.
The band tours vigorously as a way to carve out what Nero calls the "middle class musician existence." He notes, "No one's selling any records, radio isn't what it was, so we tour."
Nero and his wife, Allison Russell, formed the band in 2012, which they call a collective and have expanded to include three extra members, who Ida calls uncles. The band has played Sisters a number of times—Russell with her Canadian roots band Po' Girl in 2010, Nero with JT and the Clouds in 2011 and together as Birds in 2013.
"It seems crazy it was that long ago," says Nero. "We're not OK with that... in our hearts, we'd be here at least once a year." Describing his love for Oregon and the dramatic micro climates they get to experience from one town to the next, Nero has a fondness for Sisters and is excited about the upcoming show at the Belfry this Saturday. "We love the Sisters community. People really take their music more seriously and it's a vital resource in the community. We've made some really strong relationships there."
Described as a rock 'n' roll secular gospel group, Nero says that the word gospel isn't what you think it is. "There's a lot of soul songs out there, that are like rooted in gospel," he states, "they just took out the word Jesus and replaced it with baby." He credits their unique sound in being able to connect to their audience in a unique and creative way. "It's our church," he says. "It's a way to make connections with other individuals, to feed off of and fortify. For us, live music gives you that raw feeling that nothing else does. It's that feeling we're always chasing and it's the drug that keeps us coming back."
Noting revered soul greats Sam Cooke and Otis Redding and folk legends Bob Dylan and John Prine as influencers, their sound is a soulful, rock 'n' roll mix with a bit of folky blues thrown in. Allison sings and plays both banjo and clarinet while Nero is the main songwriter, singer and guitarist. They are rounded out with percussion, bass and guitar and are touring in support of their upcoming album "Love in Wartime," which will be released later in the year.
"We didn't have to search too hard for fuel for that record," says Nero, "we started recording the album the day that our current president was inaugurated." Acknowledging the sadness and darkness settling in during a tough, turbulent time, the record is surprisingly not melancholy and focuses mostly on love. "We wanted to make a rock 'n' roll record where people could sweat out their demons," he chuckles. "Love is the only thing you can control, and the love that you put out in your little corner in the world is not an insignificant thing," he preaches, "every time you chose that path, it alters the molecules around you, for the better."
Fans can expect an energetic show, full of new tunes, upbeat rock 'n' roll, and mesmerizing powerhouse vocals, particularly in their new song "Superlover," that Nero says he wrote specifically for Russell to sing. "Even in times of hardened hearts, once you hear her sing it, she'll make you a believer."
The Birds of Chicago with Matt the Electrician
Fri. March 10, 8pm
302 E. Main Ave., Sisters