Andrew Bird at Memorial Hall – 1 October 2008
words by Matt Poindexter
Chicago multi-instrumentalist Andrew Bird approaches and executes the live performance in a manner different than most musicians. Surrounded by his multitude of pedals, loop stations, microphones, horn speakers, guitar, violin, and glockenspiel, Bird looks more like the mad scientist than rock star. And by recording, looping and manipulating each musical part in real time, on his own, Bird differs from the usual performing artist. The usual concert focuses on recreating the sonic elements of each recorded song – reproducing a known quantity for the audience. Bird, however, does the opposite – he instead centers his live sets around the deconstruction and reinterpretation of each song.
Bird’s solo show at Memorial Hall was the first on a new Fall tour, which heads to the Northeast for seven dates between New York, Pennsylvania, and New Hampshire before two performances in Los Angeles in the second half of October. The stage setup not only featured the musical workstation upfront, but a set of horn speakers along the back: two behemoths that resembled eight-foot high pitcher plants, one medium-sized speaker mounted high on a stand, and a twin rotating, controlled with a foot pedal to provide a tremolo effect.
After taking the stage, Bird briefly recorded a swath of violin parts, swirling in textured ambiance before launching into a stilted version of “Why?” from 2001’s The Swimming Hour. The smooth, bluesy feeling of the full band album version has been replaced with a tenser, jerkier rhythm part and a melodic line that jumps around surprisingly. The awkwardness of the song’s story – a passive-agressive fight between a couple – is conveyed heavily in the music, so much so that the crowd seemed slightly unsure how to react at the song’s ending. The songsmith quickly countered this by launching into a superb rendition of “A Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left,” from Andrew Bird & the Mysterious Production of Eggs. Many live recordings of this tune, one of his most well-known ones, exist, but I’ve never heard him cover all the parts so well before, full band or not. It seems that Andrew Bird has finally figured out how this staple song needs to be played in a live setting.
Later in the set, Bird revealed the name of his upcoming album, called Noble Beast, for what I believe is the first time. Three songs were debuted in Chapel Hill – “Unanimal” featuring some of the violin player’s most intense pizzicato work, “Natural Disaster,” a song about self-preservation sensations brought on by seeing Niagara Falls, and “Tenuousnessless,” a song much like his work on 2007’s Armchair Apocrypha. While it is difficult to tell how a new Andrew Bird track translates from a solo show to the studio, all three should excite the singer’s fans with regards to the new album. Between songs, the Illinois native stated that this was the first time he had performed a set that included a song from each of his major albums – 1997’s Thrills up through the yet to be released Noble Beast. Bird also treated audience members to a still untitled song: one written just this past weekend.
“This is the most precarious song of the evening,” Bird sheepishly said, “I wrote it this weekend – still haven’t finished writing it.” Described as an “anti-Imitosis” – the new song is focused of really convincing someone that they are not all alone, features the prominent refrain,
You’re not alone,
you’re not alone.
Following that sneak-peak, Bird picked up his hollow-body Gibson and launched into a new version of “The Confession” from 1998’s Oh! The Grandeur. Gone was the New Orleans drawl and syrupy violin swells – this reworking was a straightforward play, much more like a slow cut off of last year’s album than the hot jazz of ten years ago. Bird moved on to the bluesy “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning” before ending the set with an emotionally-charged version of “Tables and Chairs.” The starkness of the song, without the layered production and harmonies found on the studio version, stood out, complimenting the post-apocalyptic lyrics hauntingly. After a short break, the singer returned to the stage, picked up his violin, and played a rare version of Charlie Patton’s “Some of These Days.” The lyrics were all too true for the enchanted crowd – “some of these days you’ll be sorry, you’re gonna miss me, sweet darling, I’m going away.” With that, Andrew Bird exited the stage, having captivated the audience with his virtuoso abilities and odd stage presence.
CUAB has done a fantastic job so far this year. Between Billy Collins, Ben Folds Five, and Andrew Bird, they’ve presented three artists in two months that would have made a successful year. The Avett Brothers and Gym Class Heroes are scheduled to play soon, but both will have a difficult time surpassing the level of mastery Andrew Bird displayed in Memorial Hall.
The set list:
- Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left
- The Giant of Illinois [Handsome Family cover] – “One of my favorite songs,” – A.B.
- *NEW* Unanimal *NEW* from the forthcoming Noble Beast
- *NEW* Natural Disaster *NEW* from the forthcoming Noble Beast
- The Water Jet Cilice – “Hardest tune I ever wrote to play,” – A.B.
- *NEW* Tenuousnessless *NEW* from the forthcoming Noble Beast
- Untitled – written the previous weekend
- The Confession
- Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning
- Scythian Empires
- Tables and Chairs
- ENCORE: Some of These Days