Article

Ice Cream Man Never Lied to You! Birds Flew, while Dragons Slept in Norfolk.

Allison Russell and JT Nero fly as Birds of Chicago at North Shore Point House Concerts in Norfolk, VA. (Photo by Ron Wray)

An Episodic Day in the Life of an Up-and-Coming Band’s Tour, Number Who-Knows-What

Setting the Stage, Getting the House in Order, while Flock of Birds Alight

This is a “day-in-the-life” feature from this writer/fan trying to bring a band’s tour to life in a range beyond those shining, culminating moments on stage, in this case:     Birds of Chicago             

(I hope you’ll consider reading also my piece in No Depression about Mipso, another band’s “day-in-the-life” story from the same week.)

When I arrive at Jim Morrison’s house in the Larchmont section of upper Norfolk, I find Jim and friend Karen busily putting finishing touches on a day of house, yard, and venue preparation for a house concert that night. One of very many Jim has produced over many years in this and one previous residence nearby. My wife and I have been coming to these almost all that time and enjoying every minute

This day I would be staying for the evening’s performance, but would begin my day at North Shore Point House Concerts with an interview of the night’s performers, the mighty Birds of Chicago, whom I’d last seen in Kansas City two years before and had been listening to ever since. I had talked to Jim about them at the time, one of my recommendations. However, he was already aware of them and told me he was interested in a possible booking.

In the intervening couple of years, Jim has gotten his presenting efforts considered a non-profit operation, and he no longer has to be hushing about hosting house concerts. The home impresario has showcased some of the finest contemporary Americana/folk/country/blues, etc. artists in the world. With the help of former wife, Ann, in the beginning, and the assistance of other key life and musical partners along the way, he’s otherwise steered that ship through time and challenges.

The Birds of Chicago (BOC, I’ll call them at times) flew in, almost like that. They have a larger-than-life quality, in ways, which makes them reminiscent of birds. First to sit down was JT (JT Nero, or Terry Thomas Lindsay). I told him he was taller than I recalled. He chuckled, and I asked him, “how tall?” He said, “just under 6’4,” my brother is 6’6.” Turns out, his brother plays with Birds of Chicago often.

Next to alight was his lovely wife and musical partner, Alli (Aspasia Allison Russell). Mandy Fer walked through, as did Kevin. Mandy, of the talented duo, Dave McGraw and Mandy Fer,  would complete the band that night and for the next leg of the tour. Mandy had been friends of BOC in Chicago but recently moved to San Juan Island in the waters off the Pacific Ocean near Seattle. Kevin was looking after Ida, the Birds couple’s irrepressible and ever-charming daughter, three-year-old, Ida. He is a very pleasant, man, a real-estate dude taking some time off to watch Ida on tour. Acting somewhere between a parent and a playmate, Kevin had his hands full.

“Hi, I’m in!” Ida announced.  And later, “I’m back! I’ve come back in!” Her folks told her that she could have a jelly belly from those on the table, and she replied, “Umm,” and then, Uh, Yumm!. To which Dad said, “That rhymes,” spotting a future poet and songwriter. Takes one to know one. JT’s one of the best young song writers around.

We started to talk about the music and the Birds’ tour.

JT said, “We have hope for the future.  Our hope is regarding the goodness and the fragility (compassionate, moveable nature) of the people of the country. We are seeing the goodness of the people every day. We have an emotional need for the capacity for that sharing, when seeing the people face-to-face. Even with those who may believe differently in the current situation? I’d asked. “We get to meet so many people, some are of different beliefs. But, it hasn’t affected their kindness. No, ours is not a naïve hope, we see these things in people we might not otherwise agree with.

“As Rock and Roll folk artists though,” JT continued, “spirit is that oasis that we try to provide in the jungle where, within the drought, the lion and tiger can come and drink. This is what we aim to do every single day.”

Alli added, “If people said these negative things that they do face-to-face, a lot of these things would never be said.

As with so many bands, BOC spends a lot of road time, allowing large windows for making that tiger-lion lie-down happen. Sometimes, when the road is too long for Ida, she and mom will grab a plane. And, dad will settle-in for a long stretch of road creep. The hours pass, they said, often by him having the beginning of songs in his head. There are things “I start to hear in my head and sound them out, recording on the phone, so that when I light-down, I may note them as the start of a song. I get many ideas for songs on those trips.”

“I always miss him and am relieved when he arrives. But, he always shows up with one or two new songs that crush my heart,” Alli said.

He is a brilliant songwriter. As a poet and writer of longish life, I admire numerous of these young (and, in other instances, old) singer-songwriters, such as Ordinary Buffalo, a duo who are recent Kerrville New Folk Competition Finalists (out of 600 entrants), my pal Carrie Elkin and her recent, extraordinary The Penny Collector lyrics, Trent Wagler of Steel Wheels, whose new album I’ll review soon, and Joseph Terrell and Libby Rodenbaugh of Mipso, whom I’d just heard and covered in Richmond earlier in the week, to name just some. And, JT is one of the best.

His influences include, strongly, John Prine and Van Morrison. “They were instrumental,” he said. In addition, he added, “I’ve begun more and more to write to Alli’s voice,” another good choice.

The two birds often vary from tonight’s trio to a unit of five. Three had to leave for other engagements after Asheville, and Mandy, who was on a break, took-off with Birds for a while.

The BOC themselves had just recently been to Nashville where they now plan to settle. “The city has a good attitude toward families on the road. The schools have developed an understanding of the need for parents to pull their children early for travel at times. And, the atmosphere is good. Musical artists are welcome. You don’t have explain your profession all the time,” Alli said, with some passion to her voice.

They’ve been practicing already, housesitting and dog-sitting at the houses of friends, most recently Luther Dickinson’s house, a favorite person of theirs, from the North Mississippi Allstars, who produced their upcoming record. They had been visiting with their good friend and often-collaborator, who sings on their most recent album, Real Midnight, Rhiannon Giddens. They joined her on the set of Nashville where Giddens now has a recurring role. The BOC watched, with interest, as one scene was done “over and over.”

“We were about three years behind the curve on East Nashville,” JT said. So, they said they were likely to settle on the west side. That will mean leaving home in Chicago, which has most recently meant still-upwardly trending Logan Square and their friends in surrounding and likewise-changing Chi, increasingly out of their rent range.

With both of us having lived in the Bay Area of San Francisco and the Northside of Chicago, JT and I had lots to talk about. It turns out that JT had lived at an enviable, rent-controlled spot in the Haight in San Francisco when he met Alli. She had first become enamored of his lyrics. Their mutual friend, Trish Klein, shared them with her. Alli was then in Vancouver, originally from Canada’s more eastern Montreal.

She was playing at times in Trish’s well-known-in-indy-circles, The Be Good Tanyas. This band was a musical base of several significant women artists. Trish and Allison went on to form Po’ Girls, which JT at times played on. Likewise, they shared with me that Ally did the same thing, playing often on his band, JT and the Clouds’ efforts. They told me they first lived in separate, nearby spaces in Chicago in changing, ever-rising-in-cost neighborhoods. “We then considered this wasteful of our cash, and I moved in with JT,” she said. And, the rest is history.

Ida Finds a Dragon, and Karen Goes to Help!!

At a certain poet, Ida flew in to tell everyone that she had found a dragon in the house. Jim and Karen had been unaware, and Karen went with the excited Ida to find out. They returned after a while, and, sure enough, there was a dragon, but it was sleeping!

Expert ears tend to things performance-tinged, while Hunter hones his radio chops, & the night’s show a waits.

The band moved out to the tent where the show would be held. The tent was a gift to Jim upon her early passing from cancer, from Mary Wastenays, much-loved and appreciated volunteer for years at North Point. Mary helped out with most everything from taking admission payments to selling merch. The huge tent was used many evenings for outdoor shows when the temperature or climate was intemperate or in-question. Most shows are outdoors anymore, though they’ve been in the house or the garage as well.

Sound check was being tended to by Jim, i.e., Jim, “the sound guy,” who is an expert who has worked the other Jim’s sound for many years now, aided, as he often is, by Randy. Jim cheerfully chided the performers for one thing or another in setting up their sound or in how they would execute songs or speech as they went. They took it in their chuckling stride, made the necessary adjustments, and let him know exactly what they needed in their individual sonic needs for the night. Up here, a little more there, adjust the banjo a bit, now the guitar.

Then Hunter Hughes warmed up his radio voice, and Jim set his sound as well for the regional NPR program Hunter at Sunrise, featuring a range of Americana in music and interview. That’s exactly what the band then proceeded to do, three songs and an interview.

The artists then headed off to their rooms, while Jim (host Jim) put the finishing touches on one of the artist dinners he fixes that have justly earned him fame. Tonight, he’d be serving the band and crew his grilled tropical, ginger-basted ribs, roasted root veggies, and tomato rice salad. When weather allows, they eat on a picnic-style table on a side patio, surrounded by lush shade, as they did this night.

Then, they have a very few minutes  to take a breath and change, while the Hampton Roads Area (Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Chesapeake, Portsmouth, Hampton, Newport News, Suffolk, Sheffield, et al) crowd began to file in on a lovely, warm, spring night. Old friends and new acquaintances chatted under the beginning spattering of stars above.

In a warm breeze, in soft light, in Mary’s chapel for the musically sacred

Everyone gathered, after conversation, into their seats, and hunkered down for music. JT, Allison, and Mandy assembled themselves before their collected means of musical delivery. Alli won, for sheer spiritual arsenal, sporting a clarinet in the midst of her awkward-seeming brethren of banjo and ukulele. They all come together like a charm. Mandy had an acoustic guitar backing up her lovely pale blue-and-white electric. JT played with passion his cherished deep-brown Martin he’d gotten from their friend Luther Dickinson.

The band did a number of very special tunes signaled out by No Depression editor Kim Ruehl in her recent live-review of their concert in Asheville, NC. I won’t repeat, except to note especially my fondness in this performance of Birds’ “Remember Wild Horses” from their most recent Real Midnight album and the message-bringing (in a good way) “Super Lover.” I want to point out this latter song as it deals specifically with so much that Alli and JT spoke about in the afternoon regarding the need for us as people to carry love to each other and generations that follow.

“Tears of rage/Tears of grief/We need a Super Lover/We Need a Super Lover/The night so cold/Who among us dreams the dawn/Who could count the flowers in your heart” Wow. As Kim wrote about, this one’s from their new album, yet to come, produced by Luther Dickinson. There he is again!

Other tunes on the night’s, what I found to be, non-stop hits included “Mountains, Forests (Electric Sea Horses),” about some fun-loving sea horses, a song whimsical and richly melodic, yet poignant. It comes from their initial, self-titled album. Another was the touching “Baton Rouge,” with JT’s musically scratchy voice painting that city with an empathetic mix of regret and respect. This one, I think, another new one.

Several songs were punctuated beautifully by Alli’s clarinet, others by banjo and/or ukulele. JT stayed with his trusty, veteran six-strings-and-crafted-wood.

Alli contributed one of the richest tunes with her deeply personal “Barley,” written by her for her grandmother in Alli’s native Montreal. The song, in great swells of beauty befitting Alli’s vocal range and liquid chops, honors her ancestor’s achievements. From the ranks of the file of families to raise herself academically and professionally, then act in support of her husband’s advancement, all while raising five children.

“The wind that shakes the barley will not shake me/The wind that shakes the barley will not shake me/The wind that shakes the barley won’t shake me/As my grandma told me this I sew through that I may see” she sings. And you could almost feel the tent sway. You could see Alli and Mandy fighting back the tears.

A lovely person like her partners, Mandy brought, for a small, young woman, a great deal of power to the stage, playing her pastel-blue shredder like a flower-with-muscle. She wove throughout songs from the plush to the musically pounding, punctuated with fluid moves toward the floor and back. Her movements were sometimes echoed or preceded by the swirling waves of Alli’s center-stage twirls.

When the band broke for an intermission, Ida insisted on helping them care for their instruments, putting them carefully down, though complaining that she’d not been asked to sing, and running off through the crowd to Kevin’s unending, yet smiling chagrin.

JT and Alli are a study in contrasts, ones I count as pleasure to watch. She is a combine of liquid sound, emotional response, and sensuous movement, while he is not only raspy in voice but in demeanor and presence. Yet, he is never far from that tight, little smile of his at the edges of his chin and cheeks. And, the man is funny, a fact seldom far from evidence.

From what I learned from friends and folk I overheard, most hadn’t known of Birds of Chicago before. They came based more on Jim’s judgment and videos he’d sent. Probably, area public radio had played a helpful role as well. But, it didn’t take long for that crowd to turn, full from interested to short of happily rowdy. The band did two sets, with a careful regard for Jim’s neighbors. My wife and my only regret was the eventually almost constant aroma of cigar smoke coming downwind toward the stage.

Toward the end of the final round, I asked them from my seat by my wife near the stage if they ever did “Funeral.” It’s a song from JT’s “Caldonia” album by his JT and the Clouds. Alli said that she liked the song too, and thanked me for requesting it. She said they hadn’t rehearsed it with Mandy, but they’d do it just for me after the show, “a command performance!”

The BOC brought several songs more into that flexible area of sound and pleasant provocation, then bowed to a crowd un-thinned and still strong.

After appreciative, swollen applause and eager, long merch lines, the “command performance” arrives, then the host apprises the night with his own applause

After lengthy applause and an extensive line-up for merch and words-or-two with the players, the evening began further to wind-down. Sound Jim and Randy hauled off sound tech. Stragglers gathered the last of the folding chairs to take to Host Jim’s garage.

The final crew of few gathered in a tight circle behind me, while the BOC flocked before me, wings drawn. Mandy had switched to acoustic guitar. With pleasure I listened to a rollicking rendition of “Funeral,” which I felt blessed with. I think it was enjoyed by all. I appreciate the way JT can even make a joyful experience out of funerals in his songs.

“Hey pretty baby, let’s shake it like somebody died! The ice cream man never lied to you. Every beautiful thing is true! Hey, mama, it’s a funeral. Everywhere it’s a funeral.” JT chuckled softly as he stumbled on a couple of rusty lyrics. As they left me after the song, he patted me on the shoulder and said with a laugh, “Ron, the ladies gave you 100 per cent, I gave you maybe 95.”

About this mini post-concert, I thought I heard Jim say “it’s a first!” in the history of his august series.

Then, it was time for the time for the band to start their own equipment haul. Karen, then JT and Mandy helped me to my Uber, and I started home. I had a happy driver, another Navy man, this one, like some drivers, with a gift of gab. As he guided me through his life, I found a few moments to wrap my brain around a very special night and the chance to meet a singular gang of three and their special party.

Having packed the edge of a midnight dream full with momentum, each moment with chariots of love to break the next morning, I bid my Uber man the best of evenings, thanking the young bands of the morning for blessings they spend.

Back at the Morrison house, things began to wind down as well. Jim Facebooked the following about the night that had continued on mellifluous Runnymeade Street:

“I'm going to ride last night's show for a long time, both for the performance and for the after. It's a special night when you're standing in your kitchen after the show, sipping bourbon, discussing Van Morrison's "Astral Weeks" and John Prine. Then J.T. and Ali's irrepressible three-year old flies in and wants to talk about lyrics. So they sing a few verses of "Muhlenberg County" to her. I truly get back as much as I give on these nights.”

Jim’s last, somewhat awesome, word on the night was as follows:

“Last night's Birds of Chicago show might be the most moving and uplifting of more than 100 concerts over 16 years.”

I strongly agree, with the one proviso that I might add Tom Russell’s extraordinary show some years ago at Jim’s earlier location to that summit. That reminded me of another night at Jim’s at the previous location nearby, now some years ago, when I briefly babysat (while Mom was chatting on a break) the cute, toddler great-granddaughter of Woody Guthrie, daughter of the talented Sarah Lee Guthrie and her musical partner/hubby Johnny Irion. This certainly brought to mind Birds of Chicago and other musical families I’ve known.

But, to return to the magical night at Jim’s and his benediction, I only add to our host’s words, Halleluiah!