Concert Review: Andrew Bird, Sixth & I Historic Synagogue, 12/7

A few weeks ago I mentioned that I’d picked up Tradi-Mods vs. Rockers: Alternative Takes on Congotronics. From the liner notes:

I first heard Konono’s first record 3-4 years ago and I responded right away to this utterly functional polyrhythmic party music. It reminded me of that style of north-Mississippi blues where there are no linear «check me out» solos, just these indestructible interlocking riffs. And of course the distortion. I had been making these pizzicato loops for some time and started using a thing called the «blister agent» — a simple handwired device that sounds remarkably like a distorted mbira. I got to play with Konono this summer. It was awesome to be onstage with them and feel their music resonate in my bones.

That’s Andrew Bird’s commentary for the track he contributed, “Ohnono/Kiwembo”. It kept coming to mind last night as I sat and watched — especially certain words and phrases. The chief word that kept recurring to me was indestructible.

I’m glad I waited until I’d seen the second night to start talking about what I saw Bird do, because while I’m not sure exactly what went on between the end of Monday night’s show and the start of last night’s, something happened. Bird came out swinging for the fences in a way that he didn’t do on Monday.

Part of it may have been changes in the sound setup. Monday there were a few issues — a slight buzzy overtone to what came out of the four standing belled horns and wall of hornlets separating Bird from the audience, and the sound seemed too loud for the room — but Tuesday they were corrected. Part of it, though this may be only coincidence, was that winding up Monday night’s show with Charley Patton’s “Goin’ Home” seemed to make him more comfortable getting brassy, vocally speaking — much like Patton himself.

That brassy quality carried over into Tuesday. Bird was exponentially more confident. Monday he described himself as “a little emotionally congested”, but there was no sign of that Tuesday. Tentativeness was out the window, replaced by the kind of presence that made me fall in love with his music to begin with — which is something I haven’t seen from him for a long time.

Indestructible is a good word for it. Bird’s commentary on his own work doesn’t apply only to his Congotronics compilation track, or to Konono N°1’s or Sobanza Mimanisa’s work. What I fell in love with in Bird’s work were those indestructible, interlocking riffs — as far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t get much better than the version of “Simple X” from the Live in Montreal self-release — that are nonetheless utterly functional. I’ve always had the sense that Andrew Bird makes music that creates foundations you can build a skyscraper on, and last night we finally got a few intimations that after his break from touring this year, this is what he’s doing again.

What this means, of course, is that the way Bird interprets gezelligheid, as I discussed yesterday, has changed from last year. Both nights he said that his goal was to have a place where he could play — not just perform his music, but play with it. He said he wanted to play this music while it was fresh, and since it’s been a year or more he’s been working on the quieter, stripped-down melodies without lyrics, those songs have evolved, growing increasingly complicated, and in some cases with shifting lyrics. He also gave us glimpses of where some of these songs came from: “Lusitania”, which he’s been playing infrequently since late 2008, evolved as part of Noble Beast’s “Natural Disaster”. “Oh Baltimore” may not be titled “Oh Baltimore” any more, he says, but the verse about sparrows in the fountains came from a twenty-minute walk in New Orleans where he had to provide Martin Dosh with some lyrics in a very short period of time. Part of “Breeding Desperation” (or “Desperation Breeds”; he said he hasn’t decided) came from “The Twistable, Turnable Man Returns”, his contribution to this year’s tribute to Shel Silverstein. More, after playing “Breeding Desperation” — which also had that tighter, brassier, more projected feeling Tuesday as compared to Monday — he straightened up from playing with his pedal board, looked kind of surprised, and said, “Well, I learned something.”

Gezelligheid still means coziness, then, but this year there’s confidence that wasn’t there last year. There’s direction. There are more nods to his influences. If that means the shows are less sedate than last year’s — that’s not a bad thing. If anything, this year is not just a return to form, but an expansion of form.

I’d have to see more to be certain, but my instinctive feeling is that returning to reconsider his influences may be the reason he’s sounding more put-together than he was last year. Monday he played Jeremy Ylvisaker’s “Crown Salesman”. Tuesday he mentioned that at every show, he tries to cover the Handsome Family at least once. He played “Nyatiti” both nights, mentioning its roots in Kenyan music. He mentioned writing for Dosh and bringing that writing in to his own work. He channeled Charley Patton. He played “Carrion Suite” from Useless Creatures with strict attention paid to classical technique and detail — the col legno section in particular was more precise than I’ve ever heard it, which also gave him room to play with it. He drew a line from his new song “The Lazy Projector” to “Capital I” to “Imitosis”, played back-to-back Tuesday.

There are also unifying thematic elements in his new lyrics. The ocean comes up a lot. Death and the afterlife come up a lot. I’m sure there’s a way that Zach Galifianakis in a bee suit in “Breeding Desperation” — Bird’s sudden vision for the music video, which caused him to write a verse so the video could make sense — ties into those, or that there will be when the song is complete. Bird also seems to be more focused on current events than he has in the past — the Gulf oil spill came up again, and “The Lazy Projector” may have a TSA reference or two, though I can’t say for certain whether that was intentional. He also may be shifting from considering objectivity (“Imitosis”) to subjectivity (“The Lazy Projector”), but I think it’s still too early to say for sure.

Part of a return to considering influences can also mean engaging in comfortable ritual. By now, anybody who’s seen Bird in concert has seen him slowly shed shoes, scarf, and sometimes jacket during his sets; that happened in the familiar manner both nights. Both nights he played “Why?”, saying before that he has to do it to burn off nervous energy and settle in on stage. He covered the Handsome Family and Charley Patton. And this is also a kind of fellowship: hitting known checkpoints, whether or not the audience expects you to do it, is a way of paying respect not just to your influences, but to yourself. It’s a way to respect your own process and create your own safe space in a formal environment.

And with the creation of that safe space, with evolved material, comes what I found missing from the Largo show that’s back now: joy. It’s not that anything Andrew Bird played had the same sense of wonder as “Simple X”, “Dark Matter”, or “Tables and Chairs”, but rather that he was so visibly and audibly certain about what he was doing that he looked powerful, and in control. He’s building things again — music you can build that skyscraper on. And so even if he didn’t display that same joy — at the risk of sounding corny, again, I felt it. Indestructibility might be a myth — which is what he seems to be suggesting, with his new focus on cyclical events and the afterlife — but for an hour and a half inside a synagogue, I could believe it isn’t a myth, and I could carry that belief back out into the cold, at least for a little while.

There were plenty of small delights both nights — one of my favorites is how we found out that the base looping layer on “Why?” is supposed to be twenty-six seconds, because on Monday he did it in twenty-eight, which was not his original intention, after assuring us that it’d probably work out fine — but the biggest one is that Bird did utter the words new record. No name, no timeline, no hint of track listing, but the words are there and he’s thinking about it. If there are any more details to be had, I’d put money on them coming out in Chicago next week. Stay tuned.

Set list:
You Woke Me Up
Carrion Suite
Oh Baltimore (“I don’t know what it’s called.”)
Natural Disaster
Tin Foil (The Handsome Family)
Breeding Desperation/Desperation Breeds
The Lazy Projector
Capital I
The Barn Tapes
Lusitania (with Julianna Barwick)
The Happy Birthday Song
Orpheus Looks Back
The Fatal Shore
Goin’ Home (Charley Patton) (with Julianna Barwick)

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