A mostly young, scattered-with-40-and-50-somethings audience was pleased last Friday night at SOhO in downtown Santa Barbara when American roots band Birds of Chicago and reggae-rock-soul musician Sean Hayes took the stage.
Birds of Chicago, fronted by JT Nero (of JT and the Clouds) and Allison Russell (of Po’ Girl) took the stage around 9:30 p.m. with a low and quiet song, sung by Russell. Her gorgeous, sultry voice drifted through the venue, drawing people into the main room to sway, dance and listen.
The duo and their bass-player started with “Downpressor,” originally by rasta-gods Peter Tosh and the Wailers. The song was a good start to the night, encouraging people to dance and getting more stragglers to join the crowd for what promised to be an excellent set.
Birds of Chicago played several tunes off of their recent self-titled release, including the jovial and sweet “Flying Dreams.” Russell and Nero sing characteristically thoughtful lyrics during the song’s verse: “I wish you flying dreams … I don’t wish you wings …’Cause if you grow those things, that’s everything / There’s no more dreams / There’s only silence in the night.”
Though the mood of the show was much more laid back and sultry than the first time I saw the band perform (at Strawberry, an outdoors bluegrass festival in Yosemite), I enjoyed the change of pace and felt that the set still provided the audience with pockets of serene self-reflection we could step into. One such moment occurred during “Before She Goes,” a slow, melancholy song sung by Russell, which also showed off her impressive whistling skills. Andrew Bird, watch out.
The audience at large did not rock out to the openers’ set in the same way they did with Sean Hayes, but that is not to say the Birds of Chicago can’t rock out; they just do it with banjoes, ukuleles, clarinets and guitars (all of which Russell is capable of playing, by the way). They were well-received by all those who really listened.
Hayes’ set certainly shifted gears. As soon as he came on stage, a horde of people dressed for the club, drinks in hand swarmed the main room. Pretty soon it was packed and 20-somethings gyrated to the grooving sounds of bass, guitar and Hayes’ practiced voice.
Though at first I found the reggae-infused jams repetitive, I definitely warmed up to the atmosphere Hayes inspired. From the descriptions I had read about his latest album, Before We Turn to Dust, I was expecting a more low-key, emotional performance with songs touching on fatherhood and missing his family. But Hayes amped up the energy for the crowd. The songs were catchy and fun to dance to, and everyone I could see was overwhelmingly into it.
All in all, SOhO once again delivered a great night of music, with musicians who knew how to strike a chord with the receptive, enthusiastic audience. It was a night well-spent.