Birds of Chicago (Robinson and Rohe open)
Birds of Chicago have been riding a swell of good mojo in the Americana scene since their inception in late 2012. With their new album, Love in Wartime, they are set to both confirm that roots world buzz, and break on through to a much wider audience.
Recorded in Chicago against a backdrop of bewilderment, deep divide and dread, Love in Wartime is a rock and roll suite with a cinematic sweep. Co-produced with Luther Dickinson (North Mississippi Allstars), it evokes epic efforts of the 60s and 70s, with love as the undeniable through-line.
Built around the chemistry and fire between Allison Russell and JT Nero, and their rock-steady band, BOC tours hard. Russell and Nero played with different bands in the mid-aughts (Po Girl and JT and the Clouds) before finding their way to each other. Nero, who writes the bulk of the songs, found himself a transcendent vocal muse in Russell (a powerful writer herself) and the band honed its chops on the road, playing 200 shows a year between 2013-17. All that shaping and sharpening, over so many miles, led them back to Chicagos Electrical Audio in January of 2017, to begin recording Love in Wartime. "Any act of love is an act of bravery," says Russell.. We want to give people some good news. And we want them to be able to dance when they hear it."
Their most recent releases include 2016's Joe Henry-produced Real Midnight and 2017's EP American Flowers, BOC's debut from the label Signature Sounds Recordings. Critics have searched for the right words to describe Real Midnights deep lyricism, gut-punch singing and musicality. Secular gospel was one phrase that caught some traction. That fervor is evident in Love and Wartime as well:
Roll Away the heavy stone/roll away the heavy hours/roll on in the summer moon/whos alive whos alive whos alive?
The invitation is joyous, but urgent. Theres another phrase that they used to describe poetry intoned over roots music mash-ups: Rock n Roll. The Birds consider themselves a rock and roll band first and foremost, and Love in Wartime doesnt leave any doubt about that.
Birds shows attract a mix of indy rockers, jam-kids and Americana/roots lovers, mixing moments of hushed attention with wild, rock and soul abandon. Says Nero, a good show can send you back out into the night feeling -- for at least a little while - that everything isnt broken.
These days, thats no small thing.
ROBINSON AND ROHE
Ask Robinson & Rohe how the duo was formed and theyll look at each other as if to say, Which beginning should we begin with? The two have known each other for over a decade, developing a friendship as they pursued their separate careersspanning everything from playing Brazilian jazz gigs to composing orchestral scores.
Over those years, the two grew into powerhouse performers. Liam Robinson honed his wide-ranging skills as an original cast member of the Tony Award winning play Warhorse, as musical director and vocal arranger of Anaïs Mitchells Broadway sensation Hadestown, as a composer in the Red Light New Music collective, and as a member of the Becca Stevens Band.
Meanwhile, Jean Rohe began touring and recording with her band, honing a honeyed, far-ranging voice and collecting accolades along the way (a sure-footed young singer-songwriter, says the New York Times.) Most recently, her sophomore record, Sisterly, won Best Adult Contemporary Album at the 2019 Independent Music Awards. Rohe also garnered attention for her unflinching alternative anthem for the United States, National Anthem: Arise! Arise! which continues to be performed and recorded by choirs and bands across the country, and was published in the Rise Up Singing songbook sequel.
Despite long days and separately flourishing careers, the two found themselves with a musical itch they hadnt yet scratched. One afternoon, they sat at Robinsons kitchen table, swapping harmonies as they sang some of the old folk songs both of them had grown up with. At the end of one song, says Rohe, we both sat there in silence. Stripped down to their two voices, they could hear the potential for something big: Its a magical thing to phrase with someone like that, says Robinson, to breathe together and land language in time, in tune, even pushing and pulling tempo together.
They started exchanging lyrics and musicRobinson taking a fragment of writing from Rohe and delivering it back to her married to a melody. The collaborative process was the start of what would become their debut record, Hunger. It was also the start of their love story.
Robinson recalls writing a love song about Rohe early on in their relationship. He knew it didnt belong on any other instrument but the banjo. The only problem was that he wasnt a proficient enough banjo player for the music he had written. For him, the solution was simple: I had to learn how to play it for those songs, he says. It took a while. Rohe echoes this uncompromising drive to deliver whatever the songs demanded of them, saying that over the past few years, her guitar-playing has entered a new realm: It all came from this necessity of expressing these songs the way they need to be expressed.
All that love and labor resonates throughout Hunger. The record pushes the boundaries of its more formalistic structures, featuring lyrics that delve into questions of tradition and inheritanceeven as it serves as a testament to the richness of both. Here, the tendency towards romanticizing often heard in traditional folk and Americana are brought down to earth with powerful, inquisitive lyrics and harmonies that haunt, leaving us with questions about where we might fit in this great shifting promise and myth of America.
Hunger is a record full of songs about love and landoften both at the same time. The tight title track explores the drive to consume and create at the root of some of humanitys greatest accomplishments and atrocities, all while charting the story of a love affair from youthful meeting to the parting of death: And we wondered if our love would endure the certain pain/And if this land could withstand the endless strain of our hunger."
The detailed arrangements of the song come through with an urgencyin part a testament to the way it was produced. Over four days, Robinson and Rohe recorded the entire record in a single room, together with Hannah Read (fiddle), Chris Tordini (bass), and Kyle Morgan (resonator, electric and acoustic guitars). The energy of the performancesrecorded at a studio space in an old house up in the Catskillscomes through with a richness that is earthy and immediate rather than overhandled.
That unadulterated sound lets listeners feel the intimacy and magic of the duos vocal harmonies. In Louisa, a song that gives Rohes lithe voice room to travel, a spurned lover addresses her tale of pain and abandonment to the Southern town she gave up her home for. Shine, too, traffics in the pains of love, and features some of the more affecting harmonizing on the recordRobinsons voice rising and breaking alongside Rohesthe two moving beyond words to utter sounds that function as a single shifting instrument, while never letting you forget the two minds behind it.
Shine raises questions of trust and fidelity: You say that youre mine, love, but are you just mine? The tone evolves throughout the song, and as it travels from ominous to pleading, we get the sense that we know how this will all end. But instead of death, destruction, or heartbreak, a kind of hope is uncovered.
This is no naïve hope. Emblematic of the open-eyed quality that characterizes the entire record, the song ends with a hope built on deep and unfaltering honesty. Hunger captures the awareness of the pain and challenges that are surely to come, and that glorious human decision to forge ahead anyway.
me and thee coffeehouse (View)
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Marblehead, MA 01945
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