Minneapolis alt-country heroes the Jayhawks haven’t been idle since releasing 2016’s “Paging Mr. Proust” album and its standout single “Quiet Corners & Empty Spaces.” In addition to multiple Chicago visits, the band has also made records with Wesley Stace (a.k.a. John Wesley Harding) and the beknighted Ray Davies of the Kinks.
The Jayhawks return this week with new material of their own, playing songs from forthcoming album “Back Roads and Abandoned Motels.” The new material finds the band taking a different spin on collaboration, reclaiming songs written with and for other acts including the Dixie Chicks, Ari Hest, Carrie Rodriguez and others. “If you want a chorus, you’d better call Louris” has become frontman Gary Louris’ tagline as an in-demand songwriting partner. The retooled songs will make fitting additions to the Jayhawks’ performances at Thalia Hall and the Square Roots Festival.
“These songs all felt like they were in our wheelhouse,” says Louris in a press release.
The Jayhawks are blessed with three talented vocalists, all of whom are featured in concerts and on record. Keyboardist Karen Grotberg takes the boldest step forward with her first lead vocal on a Jayhawks album. The horn-fueled “Come Cryin’ to Me” was originally recorded by Natalie Maines for her 2013 album “Mother.”
“Gonna Be a Darkness” is a sweetly sung song written by Louris and Jayhawks friend Jakob Dylan for the HBO show “True Blood.” The lyric about facing the hereafter is wryly devoid of comfort to anyone who may be anxious about what lies beyond this veil of tears. “Heaven may not get you,” sings drummer Tim O’Reagan. “The devil may see you first.” The golden-voiced Louris gives high praise to his bandmate, saying, “He’s a better singer than I am, technically.”
The spirited alt-country waltz “Bitter End” follows suit, featuring the mandolin of new Jayhawks member John Jackson. The song raises a toast and sends the dearly departed to its rest with the dubious blessing, “You can sleep tonight, knowing you’ll always live on in a song.” The song was originally recorded by the Dixie Chicks for their “Taking the Long Way” album.
The Jayhawks lineup is completed by founding bassist Marc Perlman, who lends his fluid sense of rhythm and melody alongside the brushed drums and tumbling acoustic guitar of the haunted “Bird Never Flies.”
As if sensing the pervasive melancholy running through his collaborative work, Louris answers with the grateful and open-hearted “Carry You to Safety.” The song recalls the emotional nuance of past Jayhawks favorites like “Save it for a Rainy Day.” Hopefully, both will appear in the local set lists this week.
The Jayhawks, with Sima Cunningham, 7 p.m. July 13, Thalia Hall, 1807 S. Allport. Admission: $26-$60 (ages 17+) thaliahallchicago.com. At Square Roots Festival, 8:45 p.m., July 14, North Stage (all ages); suggested donation: $10 adults, $5 kids/seniors, $20 families; squareroots.org.
Jeff Elbel is a local freelance writer.