Andrew Bird hasn’t been back to Milwaukee since his stint of two shows there in 2009, so he was greeted by a very enthusiastic crowd at the Riverside Theater on Saturday night. He emerged on the stage with a new addition to his many-layered outfit, a red hat, another nod to the fact that this is yet another tour where Bird is going to spend the majority of it being ill. As always, though, his performance didn’t suffer noticeably for it as he led his band through a fifteen-song main set and two encores.
Much as he did in Nashville, Bird devoted the middle portion of his set to an unplugged jam session, his band clustered around a single microphone off to the side of the stage. It didn’t have the same historical connotations as it did in the historic Ryman Auditorium, but it still sounded amazing. “Effigy” got a huge round of applause, which seemed to momentarily stun Bird. It’s interesting that “Effigy” has been one of the songs from Noble Beast that’s sticking around in concert for now, but it’s got a very well deserved slot on the setlist. He also included a cover of a Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You” in the old-timey section, which he said had touched him recently. It’s a very folksy, heartfelt ballad, perfectly suited for the acoustic session.
The new music sits well with Bird, owing largely to the fact that the album itself was recorded live, so the songs didn’t need to be reworked in order to be played in concert. There are tiny tweaks here and there, and the way that Bird performs (and how tight his band is) allows for some freedom to reinterpret the new material. “Orpheo Looks Back” is my favorite off of the new album, and is a song that continues to give me a lot of feeling. The way that he loops his vocals at the end, creating layers and layers of sound, just gives me chills. The video linked isn’t mine, but is from the same show, although it’s only the back half of the song. If you haven’t had the chance to see him do this one live, plugged-in, with the full band, check out that link, or this one from Paris earlier this month. “Fatal Shore” settled into a bit slower of a groove, and Bird referred to it as a “late night slow jam”. (He also pulled out a different guitar for this one, a red one that I don’t think I’ve seen since 2009.)
Of course, I would be remiss not to mention the repeated false starts that hit the beginning of “Plasticities” towards the end of the show. “My finger got stuck,” he said after flubbing the opening notes the first time. After missing it the third time, he pointed out that “you get a couple of do-overs and then it gets awkward. First it’s funny, then it’s awkward.” I enjoy the fact that he acknowledges these things — it’s like he’s letting us in on a secret, and it makes the very, very few mistakes that he makes somehow more endearing. He pulled it together and went on to offer up an outstanding rendition of the song, one which ends with the members of the band crouched on the ground, manipulating their various knobs and pedals to bring it to a close.
As usual, he closed out the show with “Tables and Chairs” and “Fake Palindromes”, which are two of the best songs off of one of the best albums of all time. I’m always struck by how different these songs are from their recorded versions. The Mysterious Production of Eggs is a sleepy little album, but live, these songs have a life of their own. “Fake Palindromes” in particular is performed with a new level of swagger that I haven’t really seen before out of Bird. There’s a lot of confidence in his performance of that song, and he knows he’s got the audience right in the palm of his hand for the duration of it.
He ended the evening with a cover of the Handsome Family’s “So Much Wine”, and the Charley Patton tune “Goin’ Home’. Both were acoustic, around that old-timey mic, and while they were great renditions, I’m pretty sure that the audience missed the entire point of the first song. (I have lots of thoughts about the audience in general, but I’m keeping them to myself.) Bird came back for a second encore, taking the stage alone to perform the always-moody “Weather Systems”, leaving the audience to bathe in a swirl of bowed notes and the soft tones of the glockenspiel that sound more like wind chimes, gently clanging in the breeze.
The crowd seemed to take a bit longer to warm up to Eugene Mirman’s set of jokes about Facebook, religion, the Tea Party, and cable service providers, but he had them by the end. Milwaukee was Mirman’s last show with Bird and company; Bird’s taking a few days off and then heading to the pacific Northwest, where he’ll be joined by Laura Marling. (I look forward to Laura joining him for “Lusitania”. This is a thing that I have decreed must happen, and subsequently be posted to Youtube for my enjoyment.)
Give It Away (acoustic)
If I Needed You (acoustic, Townes Van Zandt)
Orpheo Looks Back
Tables and Chairs
So Much Wine (acoustic, Handsome Family)
Goin’ Home (acoustic, Charley Patton)