Concert Review: Andrew Bird, Ryman Auditorium, Nashville, TN, 3/19/12

[Previously, on Southern Roadtrips with How’s My Living?: Andrew Bird at the Tabernacle.]

Today we got to visit with some ghosts.

We got to Nashville around the middle of this afternoon, and we did a little: went to Grimey’s, walked down Broadway (so many places to buy cowboy boots, so little time), looked out at the Cumberland River, went into Ernest Tubb’s and bought shirts with the cover art from the Louvin Brothers’ Satan Is Real on them. That stretch of Broadway from the Ryman down to the river is the midpoint between Beale Street in Memphis and Sixth Street in Austin, in terms of kitsch. The difference is that the Nashville stars they’re selling here are mostly dead and gone.

Enter Andrew Bird, on the stage of the Ryman Auditorium.

Any time you enter the Ryman, as audience or as musician, you have to tangle with the building’s history, either by ignoring it or by acknowledging it. It’s hard to be unaware of it — signs and radio are there to let you know what it is, and you can’t walk into the auditorium without knowing a little something about the place where you’ve found yourself.

We took our seats under the Confederate Gallery (installed for a United Confederate Veterans event in 1897) and watched as Bird worked his way through a set that bore a lot of resemblance to what we saw in Atlanta last Saturday night — until it didn’t. Turns out the pedal that lets Dosh loop Bird was busted, which meant that Bird, Ylvisaker, and new bassist Alan Hampton spent a good third of the show gathered around a single mic to play acoustic. “This means we’re going to play this room the way it was meant to be played,” Bird said; he’s as aware of the Ryman’s importance as anyone, and he didn’t disappoint.

In the Ryman’s space, the Janus horn — you know, this one — becomes a prayer wheel. It doesn’t just distort the sound for us out in the house; it also takes the sound backstage as well. And in terms of history, in terms of the figures who have moved in and out of the Ryman in the past hundred-odd years, in terms of the artists who built American popular music and the audiences who came to get religion, who tuned in to WSM to get religion, who made music their religion — the Ryman has one of the most storied backstages of any venue in the United States. Bird’s Janus horn, built to look like a two-headed old gramophone, spins and plays that music for everyone in the house and beyond. It wasn’t the record that spun on the gramophone; it was the gramophone that spun for everyone. Listening to the music wasn’t an individual act, conducted alone, but a communal act that happened to use the same visual imagery.

And in that particular space, with the particular relationships between the gramophone and the history of the Grand Ole Opry — it doesn’t get much more poetical than that. I feel like I just saw Andrew Bird conduct a seance, playing “Weather Systems” and “Fake Palindromes” to pay respect to the specters of Kitty Wells, Tammy Wynette, Patsy Cline; playing “Trials, Troubles, Tribulations” to nod to decades of gospel singers long since gone; playing “Goin’ Home” for Charley Patton, invoking him in a place he never was and never could have been. When you play like that in a place like the Ryman, you signify: you place yourself within their lineage, and you pay respect to the work they did. And the spinning horn took the music to every corner of the building.

Sarah’s got the pictures. I’ve got the feet-kicking, hand-flapping, and dreamy talk about imagery. (I am afraid I may have poked her a little too hard when he started in with the Handsome Family covers. Sorry, Sarah; I was just excited.) Y’all, Bird covered “The Sad Milkman” for the first time, and we got to spend two hours watching ANDREW BIRD have an acoustic jam session on that stage. On that stage. I’m not so mean as to wish Dosh’s looping pedal would break more often, but this was a once-in-a-lifetime, number-one-on-the-bucket-list, jeez-you-wish-you-were-us kind of show.

Also, “Orpheo Looks Back” is tremendous when played acoustic, and Jeremy Ylvisaker got a well-deserved round of applause for his breakdown in “So Much Wine,” and the songs I liked the best (as usual) were the ones where he got more physically involved with the performance — “Tables and Chairs” and “Fake Palindromes.” With the exception of the acoustic songs, of course. Andrew Bird, please play like this more often, because it’s epic and it’s fascinating and other people deserve to see what you can do like this.

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Set List

Carrion Suite
Danse Caribbe
Desperation Breeds
Measuring Cups
Lazy Projector
Bein’ Green
Near Death Experience Experience
Give It Away (acoustic)
Effigy (acoustic)
Orpheo Looks Back (acoustic)
Fatal Shore (acoustic)
Tables And Chairs
Fake Palindromes

Encore 1:
Trials, Troubles, Tribulations (acoustic; E.C. Ball)
Goin’ Home (acoustic; Charley Patton)
The Sad Milkman (acoustic; Handsome Family)
So Much Wine (acoustic; Handsome Family)

Encore 2:
Weather Systems