Guest Post: Concert Review: Andrew Bird at Largo, 5/15

[ When I found out a friend of mine was going to one of Andrew Bird’s shows at Largo, I couldn’t help but to ask her to write a review for the blog. First off, I like living vicariously through others, and second, well… just read the post. It makes me happy. So, a huge thank you to Mel for reporting back on this very special show. –Sarah ]

LargoIt’s a little weird to start off a review of Andrew Bird’s show Saturday night at Largo at the Coronet in Los Angeles with lyrics from another artist, but the words have been stuck in my head since I arrived in California. Gillian Welch, “Revelator”: I’ll go back to Cali where I can sleep out every night and watch the waves and move the fader.

Welch’s lyrics are a more appropriate descriptor for Bird’s show than it may seem on the surface. In late 2008 and early 2009, Gillian Welch and her partner David Rawlings had a residency at Largo while they were still working out the kinks in their latest project, Dave Rawlings Machine. They used Largo’s space to figure out how to evolve — and Andrew Bird is doing the same thing.

Everything about him seemed stripped down — starting with stage setup. The four standing belled horns built by Tim Schroeder weren’t onstage. He also played several songs without aid of amplification over on one side of the stage, and he used an acoustic guitar as well as his violin.

The setlist consisted of mostly new material, some of which he’s been working on for months — I recognized several songs from the gezelligheid church shows in Minneapolis and Chicago last December, and the older the songs were, the more evolved they were, and the more confident he was in playing them. He also played songs that he’d started developing in the last few days, one of which was about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico: in the story he told, he woke up in a cold sweat thinking about the fact that there’s a hole in the ocean floor, and the song spun out from there.

On the whole, Bird’s newer subject material isn’t radically different from his more recent work. He’s still playing with ideas and concepts related to natural disasters, and he still relates the macro to the micro, the impersonal to the personal. The word that I think best describes his newer work is apocalyptic, but I can’t decide whether it’s pre-, post-, or still happening.

As for his instrumental composition, very little has changed from Useless Creatures. He’s playing more with time signature — the happiest he looked all night was when he told the crowd he’d written something in 13 time — and there were a few augmented and diminished chord progressions that I haven’t heard him use before, but there were no real surprises. It’s not a shock to me, either: he showed us mostly drafts in progress, and it makes sense, both logically and historically, that the arrangements he showed us were more spare than usual. This was newer material that he played by himself, and he’s still tinkering with a lot of it.

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A standout among the new material was a song currently titled “The Near-Death Experience”, the chorus of which seems like a either a counterpart or a rebuttal to Armchair Apocrypha’s “Fiery Crash”: “Dare the plane to crash / Redeem miles for cash / Dance like we’re cancer survivors / Grateful simply to be alive.” Combined with the tighter, angrier version of “You Woke Me Up”, also with lyrics framed as a set of imperatives (“Wake up, pull it together, keep your lamp trimmed and burning”), I couldn’t help but wonder where, how, and why the latent anger and more passive action in his older material shifted into a demand for concrete action.

In light of this, and in light of his remarks about playing very old and very new material so he didn’t feel as though he was on tour, “Anonanimal” (his last song before the encore, and one of two or three songs from his most recent studio albums) became far more sinister than I’ve ever heard it before. I will become this animal perfectly adapted to our music halls: determined as Bird sounded all night to not be and to not do what he’s done for the last few years, the chorus became a fulfilled prophecy. I’d never heard the chorus as a threat before, but Saturday night, it was a threat that seemed to have turned into a promise that he’s attempting to break.

Watching him perform and interact with the crowd, it was clear both that any real stylistic shifts are internal and abstract — and still in process. His setlist was handwritten in a notebook, and from where I was, it appeared as though a few things had been scratched out. He paced around on stage a lot more than usual. While Bird has never been fantastic at forming a strong connection with his audience, he seemed both more isolated from the crowd than usual, and resigned to that. He referred to living in LA to avoid Chicago, and he made several references to not wanting to feel as though he was out on tour, saying once that he thought he might be getting a little too introverted, and it was good for him to be out in front of people.

Before the first song — which was “First Song” from Weather Systems — he admitted, “I only have a vague idea of what I’m doing.” Sometimes that was clear, but that isn’t a bad thing. We had the privilege of watching an extremely intelligent artist feeling his way through his creative process. Largo at the Coronet is a small enough venue — fifteen rows, around two hundred and fifty seats — that Bird wasn’t isolated by his surroundings in the way he tends to get in larger venues, such as Chicago’s Fourth Presbyterian Church.

The show did feel like the gezelligheid shows, with one notable improvement that’s difficult to clearly define. From the audience perspective, it’s the difference between watching an actor give a soliloquy and listening to a storyteller. Bird wasn’t afraid to let things get a little messy. He elected “Happy Birthday” over “Weather Systems” for his final encore on the grounds that “Weather Systems” was “more likely to go according to plan.” It’s hard not to admire that, especially in a show filled with music for which the plan is still unclear.

Still — there was one thing that I missed very much, and it’s going to sound corny as hell, but it’s important. Bird had all of his customary intensity, power, and vibrancy, but one thing was missing from his performance, and that was joy — the kind of joy he’s exhibited live in “Simple X”, “Fitz and the Dizzyspells”, and “Fake Palindromes”.

Which brings me back to Gillian Welch’s lyrics. To me they’ve always suggested the desire for freedom of movement, freedom of choice — and that finger resting gently on the masterfade. And I do think all of these concepts apply to whatever it is that Andrew Bird is up to out in California. He’s asserting control over something, or trying to, and being assertive isn’t something he does very often with his music.

I don’t know if he’s happy, but he’s definitely productive. It was a great show, if very different from the performances I’ve seen before, and I felt lucky to be there. And I’m even more itchy than I was before the show to see what he’s going to do next.

First Song
Song about the Gulf of Mexico
Oh Baltimore
Untitled uptempo number (“remix” of a song by Konono)
Song in 13 (described as “not King Crimson”)
The Near-Death Experience
Natural Disaster
Capital I
You Woke Me Up
New song (with bits of “Souverian” and the bridge of “Oh Sister” in as placeholder lyrics)
Measuring Cups (without amp, acoustic guitar)
Song about Los Angeles (he wrote it for a movie; also unamplified)

Some Of These Days (no amp)
Happy Birthday

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