Concert Review: Andrew Bird, Sixth & I Historic Synagogue, 12/6

Gezelligheid, as I understand it, doesn’t have an exact English translation. My first encounter with it was last year at the first Chicago show — I flew in from Denver several hours before the show started, stayed around the corner from Fourth Presbyterian, and flew back early the following afternoon. I have never been anywhere that cold in my life — but the cold helped form my understanding of gezelligheid. Intense coziness. If I was going to go to the expense and the hassle of arranging a bizarre work schedule for the week, flying across the Great Plains, navigating an unfamiliar city, and quite possibly freezing to death, there had better be a good payoff on the other end.

There was, of course. It’s Andrew Bird, and y’all know how we feel about him around here. But it was different at Fourth Presbyterian than it was in his solo shows in other places, and the difference lay primarily in the way his environment informed his music, and vice versa. After standing in line on Michigan Avenue in the dark for an hour and a half, and after watching a different Bird than I’d seen live before — more contemplative, more instrumental, quieter, more inclined to experimentation — without conscious thought, I’d constructed a personal understanding of gezelligheid that may or may not have anything to do with the abstract overtones the word has in Dutch. It may not match what Bird had in mind. And that’s okay.

My understanding of gezelligheid leans heavily on the concept of safe space, or sanctuary. That’s helped, of course, by Bird’s choice of venue for his shows — churches last year, and this year, too. But this year he added a synagogue, which I was glad to see. Houses of worship are charged environments for a lot of people, and not limiting the venues to Christian churches can do for a lot of people what Bird’s portrayal of women in “Fake Palindromes” did for me: it can free you up to consider the music, rather than constantly staying on guard, or feeling like you’re an unwelcome guest.

Washington, DC isn’t doing all that great at making me feel like a welcome guest. Part of the reason I chose DC over Boston or Chicago was the number of friends with couch space in the area. A friend of mine met me at Reagan National Airport yesterday afternoon and we walked around downtown before meeting another friend for dinner prior to getting in line for the show. This is their town; they made me feel welcome, despite my Peruvian death plague. I got sick Friday night, spent the weekend laid up eating clementines and Sudafed like it was my day job, and prayed the three-hour flight to DC wouldn’t result in temporary deafness due to pressure changes in stopped-up ears. While my illness isn’t DC’s fault, my friends say this weather is more like February, with temperatures hovering in the mid-thirties during the daytime, and a lot of wind.  I’d woken up at four yesterday morning in Denver; I’d spent the last three days on various cold medications. When we walked around, we went to one of the Smithsonians, we passed by the Capitol, we ventured past various monuments. That combined with various news stories, and the bent of our conversation over coffee, dinner, and museum exhibits (all circling around how people are usually jerks to each other), meant that I went into the concert with a distinct feeling of depressed unreality — feeling ill and exhausted, like life gets hard and nobody with any power is really listening to anybody else, like I was walking around a movie set, like my friends who hadn’t seen Bird live before were going to hate him and hate me for suggesting they come along, like all this expense and hassle had better be worth it.

It’s Andrew Bird. Of course it was worth it.

Sixth & I Historic Synagogue is one of the most beautiful houses of worship I’ve ever been in. The sanctuary room is small compared to Fourth Presbyterian, and square, rather than rectangular, so it feels smaller as well — which makes these gezelligheid shows a real treat. Fourth Presbyterian was huge, and I thought Bird got a little lost there last year. There was no chance of that at Sixth & I, for Bird or the opener, Julianna Barwick.

Sometimes I wonder if every musician who deals in looping tracks is going to open for Andrew Bird. On the other side of it, any musician who loops is going to spend the rest of their lives getting compared to Andrew Bird — which I’m going to do right now. Barwick’s instrument was her voice, and she knows what she’s doing. Listening to her was probably the best way to put a little cognitive distance between the outside world and the gezelligheid environment. She builds a song measure by measure, starting with low percussion, moving to melody, ending with high harmony, holding the structure long enough for us to let it sink in, and ending it. It’s gorgeous. It’s beautifully constructed. And it’s also really, really repetitive. She performed five songs, and by the third one, I could always tell when the composition was about to end, because she pushed her voice to its highest register every time. She sang mostly vowel sounds and few sibilants, and only a few intelligible words. Because of the limitations of the form she used, there weren’t any key changes. What that means is that last night, Barwick’s music came down to a game of Jenga — a carefully-balanced tower of blocks, growing higher and higher, more and more intricate, and more and more repetitive. It would almost have been a relief if she’d messed up — which she didn’t — because at least it would have been something different.

But her music is beautiful. Sixth & I’s architecture — squares, arches, domes — supports the beauty. And it was a relief to have something that didn’t challenge me. Three days of worrying about illness and travel, and I could finally relax and sink into the gezelligheid environment.

I do have to wonder, though, whether Barwick would be opening for Bird in any other environment — whether, in other words, the choice of Barwick as opener is also a factor in the environment Bird is trying to create, and whether Barwick’s music should therefore inform my understanding of gezelligheid. I consider live music, and live performance, under different criteria than I do a studio album. Venue choice, live arrangement, opening act, audience behavior, positioning of the stage, amplification systems — they all go into creating the experience of a show. A studio album can be built to last and tweaked after the recording stage, but a live show has one shot to create something.

That Andrew Bird has bothered to designate a specific setting for some winter shows, involving houses of worship, stating plainly that his goal is to feel more comfortable himself with experimenting in front of an audience, and defining the term gezelligheid for the audience before the shows even start, suggests that he’s trying to stretch the bounds of what we know, or what we think we know, about what his shows can be, and maybe about what shows should be in terms of what they can mean to us and their functions in our lives. He’s playing in towns where you have to come in out of the cold, in settings where people are trained from childhood to listen respectfully, in rooms where people come to share their faith — and songs about how to cope with the rest of the world.

Last night I went into Sixth & I exhausted and a little heartsick. I walked out grinning my face off. That’s what gezelligheid — sanctuary, safety, coziness, fellowship — can do.

I realize I haven’t talked much about what Bird actually played, and that’s because I’m going back tonight (and flying back to Denver tomorrow morning). There are differences in how he’s defining gezelligheid compared to last year, definite shifts since his Largo show in May, some new songs, and a lot to be excited about. Taking most of the year off seems to have been good for him. After tonight’s show, I’ll take a look at what’s changed, what hasn’t changed, and where (creatively speaking) he might be going next.

(And yes, my friends enjoyed themselves.)

Set list:
You Woke Me Up
Nyatiti (aborted)
Oh Baltimore
Hole in the Ocean Floor
Carrion Suite
Breeding Desperation
Selective Memory
Crown Salesman (Jeremy Ylvisaker)
The Giant of Illinois
Section 8 City
Song in 13
The Fatal Shore/Goin’ Home (Charley Patton)

Andrew Bird: Official Website | MySpace | Twitter | Store
Julianna Barwick: Official Website | MySpace | Store