The most you can expect of a performer playing new songs is that he convinces you they are as good as — or better than — the songs you know, the ones that brought you to the show in the first place. Even better is an artist who can make his old songs sound as progressive and exciting as anything new.
After he played a rousing “A Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left” (from 2005’s The Mysterious Production of Eggs) and began to loop the two intertwining violin parts that make up the slow-burning blues of “Why” (from his Bowl of Fire band’s 2001 album, The Swimming Hour), there likely wasn’t a person in the audience who could claim not to be enraptured with Andrew Bird.
He snaked through the different parts of the song, alternately plucking a simple three-note blues riff or bowing the string with frenzied force in the bridge to accentuate the character’s desperate emotions. When the lyrics took a conversational tone, (“Why’d you do what?/ Why’d I do what?/ I’m just standing here”), my friend remarked, “It’s like he’s telling a story to a group of preschool kids.” Not one to be pigeonholed, Bird jumped from these moments of up-close clarity to display a bravado and stage confidence that could have translated to an arena. There would be several times throughout the show that the yearning in Bird’s clear, high register had the same beautiful fragility as Jeff Buckley’s. It’s that split intimacy — he’s playing right to you but you can never play like that — that makes Bird such a rare performer.
To him, a song is more than a song. On his albums, he plays the role of the coolest writing teacher you never had, singing lyrics steeped in literature but not hyper-literate; they’re just slightly off-center, but memorable enough to have you singing “We’re gonna’ live on our wits/ throw away survival kits/ trade butterfly knots for Adarol” in mixed company, without embarrassment.
But at his September 20 show in San Diego, the emphasis was on the music. Behind Bird sat drummer/multi-instrumentalist Martin Dosh, armed with a keyboard, a Fender Rhodes electric piano, and what could have been the most complex set of looping/sampling equipment I’ve ever seen (sorry, Radiohead). Here’s an abridged user’s manual: Bird plays a riff on the violin and then loops it so it plays by itself. Then he plays another part on the violin on top of that, so now there are two simultaneous parts. Then he picks up the guitar or maybe plays a melody on the bells, or maybe he whistles (which is completely miraculous, this whistling ability he has). He loops whatever it is he plays next. All of these loops are picked up by Dosh, who samples them, adding in his own layers of drum and piano loops (yes, you can loop actual drum set playing — I didn’t know this either). At some point, with a veritable two-man orchestra, Bird will start singing.
This controlled electrical storm was displayed beautifully on “Skin Is, My,” where, for the last two minutes, Bird and Dosh jammed on what looked like a violin and a drum set but was essentially three interlocked, staccato violin lines, some guitars, two or three pianos, a bunch of drummers, some bells, and of course whistles. It was hypnotic and utterly astounding how precise the two were, handling this array of sounds but not overwhelming.
And there were the new songs, off his new album, tentatively titled Armchair Apocrypha, due out in March on Fat Possum. Even unfamiliar, the new songs — “Scythian Empire,” “Capital I,” and “Cataracts” — carried all the qualities that brought people out: creative lyrics sung to each person and to everyone at once, clever (and dizzying, but restrained) instrumentation, and thick, but not impenetrable, layers of sound all swirling around a recognizable, beautiful melody. And totally mind-blowing, yet somehow not over indulgent, was “Simple X,” a spacey, almost techno Dosh song that Bird recently put his lyrics to.
At one point near the end of the show, Bird stood, violin in his hand, guitar slung behind his back. The small room was full of layered parts, and yet Bird played no instrument. This, I think, is the mark of a great artist. He not only lets the music do the talking, he lets it do the playing.