Smile Politely

Come on down to Northern Magnolia

How do I begin to describe the sound of the Chicago alt-country foursome Northern Magnolia?

Bassist Jerry Rinard (far left in the photo above) puts it like this: “We give a wink and a nod to that old Americana.”

Northern Magnolia is made up of Rinard, singer/guitarist Rory Miller, and brothers Tony (guitar) and Dave (drums) Piscotti. Collectively, their influences include Led Zeppelin, The Doors, Neko Case, Gillian Welsch, Edie Brickell, Crowded House, Neil Finn, Jonatha Brooks, Ryan Adams, Wilco, and the Jayhawks. But they struggle to come up with a succinct description of their sound. 

“We sound like Northern Magnolia,” Tony jokes. If pressed for a description, Dave would say their sound was “the lovechild of Neko Case and Whiskeytown.”

Northern Magnolia hit the ground running at the end of 2010, after Dave answered an ad Miller put out looking for bandmates. He quickly recruited his brother to join on guitar, and Miller contacted her longtime friend Rinard to fill in on bass. The group of seasoned musicians convened at the brothers’ practice space under the El and the rest is history.

“As soon as we started playing together, I felt pretty awesome about it,” Rinard said. They formed a quick camaraderie in that space under the Brown Line. Miller said about the space, “We practice under the El and it sounds like thunder. It brings kind of an ambiance to the science lab.”

The band has made an impressive transition from the science lab to many popular venues in Chicago, including The Double Door, Abbey Pub, Marytr’s and Beat Kitchen, with upcoming shows scheduled at Subterranean and Fitzgerald’s. They agreed that their favorite “big” venue so far was The Double Door. But their old standby is undoubtedly Lincoln Square Lanes.

“We get to bowl for free, and the whiskey flows like water,” Miller said. I caught Northern Magnolia at Lincoln Square Lanes in April and I could feel the warmth between the band, the bartenders, and the audience. The casual atmosphere is great for bringing in guest musicians and creating some real show magic. Tony says about that magic, “There’s so much that happens at a show that you can’t rehearse, it just happens.”

Recently they took their magic on the road, up to the festival Music in the Park, in Ontonagon, Michigan. Miller described the festival as a kind of precursor to the Porcupine Music Festival, where they will be performing at then end of August, on a stage that was built into a ski lift. Past performers include Kelly Joe Phelps and That One Guy.

In the meantime, the band is looking forward to returning to Champaign on Saturday night for their gig at Luna, 9 p.m. on the patio. Northern Magnolia aren’t strangers to Champaign-Urbana. Miller and Rinard premiered on the scene in 2001 at an open mic at The Canopy Club. Rinard then settled in Champaign and played in a couple of local bands (Humpty Dumpster, The Idle Hours) in the early 2000’s. Fast forward to this decade, the band debuted their sound live in C-U last fall on 88.7, promoting their show the next day at Exile on Main Street, part of the Pygmalion Music Festival. That gig was soon followed by a show at the Iron Post during the Folk and Roots Festival. I, for one, am really stoked for their return to C-U.

Northern Magnolia are both dreamers and realists. Tony says while they are realistic about the music industry, “We’ll take this as far as it can go.”

Miller agrees, “The ultimate goal would be to be able to play music full time and not have to work a day job. It doesn’t matter if we are famous.”

Rinard is more focused on the short term. “We really just want people to buy the record.”

Northern Magnolia’s debut album, Dreams to Reckon With, should be out by the end of the year.

Check out Northern Magnolia Saturday night at Luna. Visit them online at:

Related Articles