Good, Clean Sadness: Birds of Chicago Live in Asheville, NC
The Wood Brothers were in town last night, so was JD McPherson. You’d think Asheville, North Carolina, the “Brooklyn of the South” — where you can’t throw a yoga teacher without hitting a banjo picker — would be a big enough town to pack more than one roots music show a night. But this is a weird place. Chalk it up to the crystal vortex the hippies swear is under the city; whatever it is, if there’s more than one thing happening on any given night, people just don’t go out in droves.
So it was that Birds of Chicago played to a crowd the size of a high school slumber party last night at the Isis Music Hall in West Asheville. Not that I’m complaining. Shows at the Isis, with its impeccable sound system, are always worthwhile. And the husband-and-wife duo delivered a delicious set of tunes to the small crowd, from their various releases, particularly one as-yet-unreleased disc called Love in Wartime. They recorded the album in January and singer Allison Russell called it, “The most positive thing we could think of to do.” It was co-produced by Luther Dickinson and, if this night’s set was any indication, is full of the kinds of songs that seek to usurp what guitarist JT Nero called “good, clean sadness.”
“Super Lover” was the strongest tune of the bunch, stringing out poetry about whatall is wrong and the plea for more love to surmount it. Homing in on its lyrics, through Russell’s shapeshifting, deeply soulful vocals and the architecture of the band’s strongly built soundscapes, I couldn’t help but acknowledge that this song lives in the same world we do. Outside the music hall, a world away, the US was launching missiles in Syria after a horrific chemical attack that nation launched on its civilians. This latest fact in a parade of hard-to-swallow news stories over the course of the past 18 weeks made the call for more love not only compelling and provocative, but urgent and emotional.
Russell and Nero were backed this night by a trio of crack players, filling out a sound that incorporated elements of rock, soul, jazz, and folk. All of it was held together by the strong grip of their mind-meldy harmonies and Russell’s occasional clarinet and reliably stunning lead vocals. In “Real Midnight,” the title track from their 2016 release, she hit the word, “why,” with its single-note crescendo, evolving the note from a sheepish plea to an arms-thrust-wide all-out demand for answers.
“Remember Wild Horses” was another easy standout, as was “Lone Star.” But it was “American Flowers,” a song Nero had just finished writing earlier in the day, that capped the night and stole the show. Noting that they weren’t yet sure if the tune would become part of their set, they leaned into it anyway, much to the crowd’s delight. Its lyrics delivered parables about the resilience and kindness of American people, regardless of all the jabbering on the news about deep division and partisanship, delivering us each time to the chorus: “I’ve seen American flowers / they will bloom again.”