Two words appear in virtually every description of the Jeremy Lindsay/Allison Russell collaboration known as Birds of Chicago:
They're handy terms for trying to pin down the magic that occurs when the pair sings together -- ably backed by Lindsay's Chicago-based band the Clouds -- but they're also inherently limiting because who isn't a "roots" artist? The Foo Fighters have roots and so does Taylor Swift.
Who could be more rootsy than Bob Dylan, who has made a career out of dipping into old musical styles and reworking them? But you never hear Dylan's body of work described as "roots" music.
And Americana is a vague term that implies dusty forays into traditionalism even though the Birds of Chicago's self-titled album is vibrant and very much of the moment. The world that Lindsay, a Toledo native, and the Canadian Russell explore in their lyrics and sounds might have traditional roots (there's that word again), but there's nothing stodgy about their approach.
You can judge for yourself Wednesday night when they perform at the Village Idiot in Maumee. For the time being, perhaps its best to let Lindsay's affection for The Band, another group that featured great harmonies, acoustic instrumentation, and a blending of folk, blues, soul, R&B and rock, speak for the source of the Birds of Chicago's approach.
"There probably isn't one single bigger band influence than those guys and probably the biggest thing is that there's a similar ethic where there's a great blending of all this American roots music -- gospel, blues, ragtime, country -- but the thing we take from them as a continuing inspiration is that with the Band, it always seemed like more than the sum of its parts," he said in a phone interview from a van traveling through New Mexico.
Lindsay said he's not keen on music described with "a bunch of hyphens. 'Oh, this is a country-folk-blues tune" and the songs he writes for the Birds, his solo work as JT Nero, and with his band JT and Clouds should honor the sources of inspiration while infusing it with his own personality.
"You should never hide from your influences, but at the same time you want to create a little pocket of something that feels like your own."
The Birds of Chicago collaboration began in about 2006 when Lindsay tagged along with Russell's band Po Girl on a tour of Europe. The two had known each other since 2003 and were mutual fans, so they began singing together and turning up on each other's albums and tours.
The pairing of Lindsay's soulful, idiosyncratic, and rich vocal style with Russell's beautiful, supple range, and flexibility is a natural partnership that also was explored on the JT Nero album "Mountains/Forest," on which she sang harmonies.
"She's just an incredibly dynamic singer. She's real, real good at handling complicated turns of phrase pretty delicately and she can also belt when she needs to," Lindsay said. "I never have to worry about her knowing when to do either. She's got that gift, probably because she's a songwriter in her own right."
It also allows him to write songs from a female perspective, something he does most effectively on "Come Morning," a gripping tale of a soldier's wife dealing with her psychologically damaged husband, one of several songs that feature Russell on lead vocals.
"I wanted to frame a story a woman could tell, and I had been reading a lot in Illinois about wives of soldiers and kind of what a rough go it is," Lindsay said. "There's not much romanticizing of this particular generation of soldiers and their wives because no one knows what the heck's going on with them a lot of the time."
The voices of Russell and Lindsay weave a spell on many of the songs, whether it's upbeat romps such as "Trampoline" or "Sugar Dumplin'" or pensive ballads like "Galaxy Ballroom" or the exceptional album closer "The Wide Sea."
"From a writing perspective, I love old country and soul duets and when you have another distinct persona it really just opens up the way you can write," Lindsay said.
Then there is "Old Calcutta," which he sings and which features a series of phantasmagoric images and phrases that tell a strange story that perhaps only the writer understands even though the song rattles around in your mind long after it's over.
Sample lyrics: "...I know sometimes you feel like you are dying like a porpoise/In a meadow in the summer and your skin begins to blister/And all the farmer's wife can do is stare at you and wonder."
"That would be a good example where sometimes I just write toward a feeling, and I was thinking about literally just about the constant kind of feeling of trying to find your peace in a turbulent and violent world that is incredibly unpredictable," he said.
"That's a theme that turns up a fair bit on that record. And it's almost not like finding peace... it's more like trying to take it in all at once and find a way to love it. I never want to be heavy handed. If I'm going to wrestle with that stuff it's got to have some laughs and some absurdity. It's the only way I know to get at those feelings."
The disc was recorded with funding from a Kickstarter campaign that raised $22,153 and Lindsay said it wouldn't exist without the crowd funding phenomena. He and Russell, along with bass player Chris Merrill have been criss-crossing the country promoting the CD for most of this year.
At some point Russell will return to Po Girl and Lindsay said he plans to record in the future as JT and the Clouds and release more solo work. And you can always expect them to return to Toledo. Lindsay grew up here and played in various local bands and although his parents have moved to Wisconsin and he lives in Chicago when he's not on the road, Toledo is special to him.
"It's super important to me. I still do a fair bit of fretting about where the music scene is and I still check in with my friends because you know in a town Toledo's size it's a vulnerable thing. You can have patches of great years where there's a bunch of venues committed to live music... but if a couple drop off you can really feel the suction," he said.
"I'm always hopeful and that's where things started for me. I love it and I'm grateful to that place. We'll always come back."
Birds of Chicago will be at the Village Idiot, 309 Conant St., Maumee Wednesday night with music starting at 8 p.m. Sean Hayes will be the opening act. Tickets are $15 and available at the Village Idiot or by calling 419-893-3281.
Contact Rod Lockwood at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6159.
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