Chris Mills at Schubas

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Chris Mills smiles a lot when he sings, and it’s a big, beaming smile. His voice is big, too. As he was belting out the notes of his memorable songs on Friday, Jan. 24, at Schubas, it was  obvious that he was having a great time.

Mills hasn’t lived in Chicago for several years now — what, it’s already been a decade? — but as the Tribune aptly put it in a headline over a recent interview: “Chris Mills is a Chicagoan no matter where he roams.” At least, that’s how I think of him, even if he’s living in New York. When he was still in Chicago, Mills seemed like he was part of the local alt-country scene, but his music was never really alt-country: more like singer-songwriter rock, folk and power pop. During his set on Friday, Mills joked a couple of times about the phrase that Reader critic Peter Margasak had used to describe some of his new songs: “genre-neutral.” Even if that sounds vaguely insulting, it does accurately point out how hard it is to put a genre label on Mills’ music.

Mills has a strong new album called Alexandria, his first record in five years, which he funded with a Kickstarter campaign. (I was a contributor.) The fact that he was able to raise $20,389 just goes to show that his fans haven’t forgotten him.

On this record, Mills worked with Norwegian producer Christer Knutsen, who also played guitar, piano and organ and sang backing vocals. Knutsen and drummer Pal Hausken came over from Norway to play on this current tour. Mills’ backup band, the Distant Stars, also includes a familiar face from the Chicago music scene: bassist Ryan Hembrey, who often runs the sound at the Hideout.

The Schubas music room wasn’t quite as full as it should have been — possibly because it was snowing that night, and the roads were treacherous — but the people who did turn out clearly knew Mills’ songs, the new ones as well as the older ones he has played over the years. Mills took some requests, challenging his new Scandinavian bandmates to figure out some songs they hadn’t rehearsed, such as “You Are My Favorite Song.” Highlights of the night included “The Silver Line” and “Living the Dream.”

Mills and the Distant Stars ended the night with a spirited cover of Big Star’s “Thank You Friends,” which was Mills’ way of thanking everyone who came to the show and all those who pitched in money to help him make Alexandria.

The opening act, Irish-American singer-songwriter Niall Connolly, was charming and funny as he introduced his folk songs, which were spare and lovely. Mills remarked later that Connolly is something of a leader in a scene of musicians in Brooklyn, and it was easy to believe that, based on his performance Friday.

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Niall Connolly
Niall Connolly

Correction: An earlier version of this post included an incorrect name for the drummer in Chris Mills’ band.