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Monday, March 2, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 16.0° F  Fair
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Birds of Chicago surround listeners with warm, earthy roots music
The couple's contrasting voices are a delight.

There's a certain kind of chemistry when two performers are connected by both love and song. It often comes across onstage, as when husband-and-wife duo Over the Rhine performed at the Majestic Theatre last fall. The couple's charm and affection went beyond their lyrics and melodies, bringing additional depth to their songs.

A similar connection drives Birds of Chicago, a soulful roots duo made up of lovebirds JT Nero and Allison Russell. They perform at the Stoughton Opera House on Thursday, March 20. The musicians collaborated for years in separate bands, Po' Girl and JT & the Clouds, but they combined their efforts in 2011 and got hitched a year later. This marriage has been passionate in more ways than one.

Whether you're new to Birds of Chicago or have enjoyed Nero and Russell for years, these three songs from their first self-titled album are essential pre-show listening.

A vehicle for Nero's swampy country-soul, this is one jaunty number. He takes the lead, recalling an early-'70s Gasoline Alley performance by Rod Stewart, or a Gold-era Ryan Adams. Nero's flint-and-whiskey voice works perfectly for telling this story, which is set to a deceptively cheery beat.

'Before She Goes'
This tune folds a "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard" whistle into a plaintive ballad Russell sings beautifully. It's a fantastic showcase for her silky voice, which occupies some of the same vocal range as that of Over the Rhine's Karin Bergquist. Like "Cannonball," this song illustrates how Nero and Russell's contrasting vocal textures are one of their biggest strengths. Placed side by side on the record, these tracks also show how well the two performers complement each other.

'The Wide Sea'
On this track, Birds of Chicago take a groove fit for a Roy Orbison song and filter it through a Van Morrison-style melody. In the refrain, Nero channels U2's Bono with haunting interjections like "Get away!," encouraging the crowd to sing along. Nero and Russell share the vocals during most of the piece, which builds on themes of lost love and longing.

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