November 28, 2006

Bird flocks indoors, proves to be a good migration

I was late on the Andrew Bird bandwagon. I only jumped on last spring, after his name had been the main content of excited plans throughout my dorm for months. I saw Bird for the first time last August at Lollapalooza, that shopping mall disguised as a music festival that has recently chosen Grant Park as its home. Bird’s shows are string-heavy—he plays both guitar and violin, as well as xylophone, and also whistles and sings—and he depends on extensive looping since he no longer has the support of his former band, Bowl of Fire. The very nature of an outdoor show like that facilitated by Lollapalooza hurt Bird. While it provided an atmosphere exuberant with all the good-natured, occasionally drunken debauchery of an intense block party, the acoustics suffered greatly from exposure to the great outdoors, and Andrew Bird’s violin needs the subtle acoustic effects of enclosing walls more, it would seem, than Wilco’s fantastic electric guitars do.

Luckily, I saw Bird for the second time last Saturday night, at the Logan Square Auditorium, and my faith in his live performing ability was reinstated. Bird, a Chicago native and graduate of Northwestern, played his violin fiercely, as if he were unaware that most rock stars only earn their headbanging rights and doting groupies by virtue of guitar. Bird plays a guitar, or several, but he lets it rest on his back, hanging from the strap around his neck, quite often, as he glides his bow across his violin for emphasis or records new beats to be looped for use in the background of his layered music.

And he need not worry about being outshined by guitar gods made macho by pants only Mick Jagger deserves to wear. Andrew Bird is one spiffy fellow. He walked on stage sporting a suit with a silky scarf wrapped around his neck and tucked into the collar of his suit jacket. This is one man who will never face competition on the dapper front, no matter how askew his curly hair might fall after his latest jump into the air.

But Bird’s violin bow is no fashion accessory—it’s more of an appendage. He uses it to scratch his head; he uses it to point at the audience; he uses it to annunciate the most poetic word of a particular lyric. He works that bow so hard that by the end of his set, it seemed that half of the bow’s hairs were broken in half and dangling in the air, waving about every time the bow touched the violin’s strings, just adding to the effects of the show Bird so deftly delivers.

Bird was accompanied by Martin Dosh on percussion and Pat Sansone on bass. Sansone was a steady presence, definitely a net benefit to the show, but he was left in the dirt when juxtaposed with Dosh and the deft control of every sound his drum set and looping equipment emitted. At the same time, Dosh didn’t let the subtle performance that skill so often requires prevent him from showing energy. Just as Bird became conjoined with his bow, Dosh made his body as much of a musical tool with which to play his instrument as he could. He’d brush his snares tenderly when necessary, but when it was time, he threw himself at his cymbals so vigorously that the upper cymbal became dismantled and had to be reconfigured by a roadie.

Dosh came on stage a few minutes before Bird, almost as if for a second opening, to play a few riffs for the crowd while he lined up some melodies in the looping machine. Seeing the process of melodies being recorded to be looped back later made the concert feel more intimate. It was like seeing a magic spell being cast, being let in on a magician’s best secrets.

Bird and crew are commendable also for their willingness to devote most of a concert to as-of-yet unrecorded material. While their new songs were clearly quite familiar to them, this is something few bands are brave enough to do to this extreme, and they should be lauded for adding to the excitement and novelty of the concert. To my count, in fact, Bird only played five of his old songs, using them to bracket a satisfyingly long run of about eight new songs.

He started with “A Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left” and ended with “Tables and Chairs” for a one-song encore, and there was nary a negative minute in between. Bird’s songs are marked by their unexpected imagery, and sometimes sound like nursery rhymes made sophisticated for a more adult audience. This man quite possibly has a greater handle on the more interesting words in the English language than I do, and I’m majoring in the subject. Bird works words into clever patterns, foreshadowing by seconds the antic quality of his constant physical movement. “In the crumbled financial institutions of this land/ There will be tables and chairs/ There’ll be pony rides and dancing bears/ There’ll even be a band,” Bird sang in “Tables and Chairs” during his encore, and his show is almost as good as the fantastical scene he describes. “It’s like a carnival,” says my friend Jim as we waited for the Blue Line to take us home, and, through my post-concert buzz, he seemed entirely right.