Neal Francis leaning against a black piano in a brown patchwork leather jacket
Credit: Liina Raud

Chicago singer-songwriter Neal Francis isn’t particularly religious, but the church has had a deep impact on his music. As a child piano prodigy, Francis learned to play the pipe organ at the Catholic church he attended with his family, an experience that helped fuel his budding love of performance—since then, he’s sat in with local blues bands, played with instrumental funk group the Heard, and explored piano-driven classic rock and R&B in a solo career. In 2017, Francis took a job as music minister at St. Peter’s United Church of Christ in Belmont Cragin, which unbeknownst to him would play a major role in his latest album, In Plain Sight. While on the road in support of his 2019 solo debut, Changes, Francis broke up with his longtime girlfriend. He arrived home that fall with an immediate need for a place to stay, and arranged to move into the parsonage at St. Peters for a few months. He wound up living there for a year, and was able to take advantage of the quiet nights to work on his music. That combination of time and space shines through on In Plain Sight. Recorded entirely on analog tape, its songs feel unhurried and calm even when they deal with heartache and isolation, and their bright, gently psychedelic settings carry the conviction that even the most dramatic personal obstacles can be tackled head-on. Roots-rock fans might be drawn in by a cameo from guitarist Derek Trucks on “Can’t Stop the Rain,” but the album’s best moments are Francis’s own work—the little details that seem designed to give each song a distinctive sound and character, including the spacey synth action on “Problems” and the lush instrumental outro of “Sentimental Garbage.”

Neal Francis with Dos Santos, Fri 1/14, 8 PM, Thalia Hall, 1807 S. Allport, $28.50, 17+