“And that’s the last time we will mention the pandemic,” said Ryan Ogburn from Chicken Wire Empire at City Winery Chicago on Sunday 4/18/2021. The unspoken unspeakable and unmentioned unmentionable as a sleepy Sunday rolled out 2 shows in the city of Chicago as life slowly wakes up again. The small 50 person capacity shows were like the climb uphill on a rollercoaster. When the Wilco background music volume shut off and the lights dimmed, the rush of the live music roller coaster returned for me.
The train was a moving as they opened instrumentally, a song they wrote on their way from Milwaukee to Chicago called Illinois. Mr. Engineer and Storm Cloud had the fiddle mocking the banjo and the mando telling a story. You could feel each husk of a pod, the two top and four-top tables, foot-tapping, and head bobbing as if their little pods could magnetically transport them to the front of the stage. There was a state of cautious optimism at City Winery and everyone managed to remain in polite company.
Is the doghouse upright bass player Jordan… is he 7ft tall? Their song in homage to David Grisman, who has performed on this very stage, had me thinking that this band is less likely to have traditional rounds of bluegrass and more akin to a volleyball team. They rotate along with a little more bump set spike than usual. Eat my Dust hurled into the train stop and Chicken Wire Empire played a more subdued song, Brother O Brother featuring Greg Brundage on vocals and guitar. This was the first time playing it all together as a band on stage for an audience. Musical conversations could be had again as the vow of silence was broken. It was semi-surreal and nearly the only down-tempo tune the band played for this first of 2 Sunday shows. It was part Johnny Cash in a sportcoat and part Satriani all grassed up.
The cleverly titled, New Tune in A, was a barn burner as was their soulful take on the classic Rain & Snow. HOO AH! The show wrapped up after about 90 minutes give or take. At an hour into the show, it feels like it’s been a long dream without this magic of live music in our lives. The vocal chops were so impressive, hitting the minor spectrum with such painful bliss. Even sparsely filled the room had a lot of love and a full production team buzzing in and out of the hive again.
The encore was ripe for coming back on stage with a rendition of the Welcome Back Kotter theme song but instead, Chicken Wire Empire came back with something even better. For the first time that afternoon, John Peik took center spike position on vocals and banjo as the band did Ain’t Nobody Here but Us Chickens. Trust me, you got to see that for yourself. It was adorable. With the gusto of a Looney Tunes cartoon, the theatrical close came with the crowd begging for more. Standing ovations with real loud audience approval. The magical sound of an audience’s approval was the roar of delight! Easy pickens were had in the city of Chicago cuz you always go to the Sunday show! Say it with me now, always-go-to-the-Sunday-show.