Andrew Bird, State Theatre, Minneapolis; December 17, 2012

Minneapolis isn’t Andrew Bird’s hometown, but it might as well be.  He was welcomed to the stage on Monday night like he was a native son. Of course, it helps that he has long-standing ties to the music community here: Martin Dosh has drummed/percussed/gadgeted for Bird since 2004 or so, with Jeremy Ylvisaker joining later on guitar.  Mike Lewis, another Minneapolis son, played bass and assorted woodwinds in Bird’s band for several years; he’s back with Bon Iver and other projects now, including Fat Kid Wednesdays, the jazz trio which opened for Bird at the State Theatre.

So, no, Andrew Bird might not be a Twin Cities guy, but that didn’t matter to the crowd.  Bird, who isn’t really touring in support of any particular album — the Hands of Glory not-quite-EP-not-quite-LP came out in October, but Bird just tours non-stop no matter what he’s really got going on.  The setlist was heavy on tracks from Break It Yourself, but as always, Bird peppered the show with tracks from his back catalog, both in their original forms and slightly altered ones.

The first half of the show seemed a bit sluggish.  Not sluggish in the way that a casual fan or infrequent concert-goer would necessarily recognize, but one that a repeat customer (this was Bird show #25 for yours truly, by my count) would be more apt to pick up on.  The tempos seemed to lag a bit behind their normal speeds, both on the record and live.  It wasn’t bad — I’ve yet to see a bad show from Bird and am kind of convinced at this point that he’s such a consummate performer as to be incapable of it — but it just felt… too easy.  It didn’t feel like there were risks being taken.  It felt safe, which is an unfamiliar feeling for an Andrew Bird show.

Not to say that there weren’t any surprises during that first part of the show.  An extended instrumental segment after the “Hole in the Ocean Floor” incorporated some of the lyrics to “The Naming of Things”, turning it from a brief little indie rock song into something more meditative.  “Fiery Crash”, always a favorite, was accompanied by very appropriate  stage lighting, bathing the back screen in reds, yellows, and oranges.  (Bird’s lighting design for live shows is always spectacular, and this show was no exception.  Kudos to you, lighting designer.)  The breakdown section in “Danse Caribe” — where it turns into a near hoedown for a verse, then something more African influenced — is always a highlight, with Bird’s more traditional violin work contrasting nicely with Ylvisaker’s space-y guitar work.

A little after the halfway point, Bird, Ylvisaker, and Alan Hampton on bass crowded around a solo mic at the edge of the stage for the “old timey” segment that’s become tradition for Bird concerts.  The band unplugs and performs acoustically, sound being picked up solely by that one microphone.  It’s always a highlight for me because it helps show that these men are all phenomenally talented musicians.  The looping and effects pedals make for an interesting, technologically challenging show, but stripping away the gear leaves just voices and instruments, and it’s there that Bird and company soar.  (Bird pun only slightly intended.)

The acoustic set featured two covers: “When That Helicopter Come”, originally by the Handsome Family, and “Meet Me Here at Dawn”, by Cass McCombs.  Both were fairly stunning performances, particularly the Handsome Family cover — Bird always tends to give their songs a very emotional resonance which may not always hit listeners of the original versions.  “Meet Me Here at Dawn” has been done by Bird solo at shows, but never as a full band; for it being the first time they played it as a group, it sounded pretty solid to me.  But the true highlight of that acoustic set – and perhaps my entire tenure as That Weird Lady Who Basically Goes To See Every Andrew Bird Show In The Midwest – was hearing “Sovay”.  It’s one of my earliest favorite songs of Bird’s, and I’d despaired of ever hearing it live.  I mean, come on, twenty-plus shows and it still hadn’t made an appearance, even in shows where he more heavily mined his back catalog than usual?  I’d given up.  My grin couldn’t possibly have gotten any wider for that entire song.  Look, the rest of the show could have been a flop (it wasn’t) and that one song would have left me floating the whole night.

Bird returned to the full band set-up for the final few songs, alternating between upbeat (“Plasticities”, “Tables and Chairs”), laid-back (“Fatal Shore”) and, well, kind of foreboding in its own special way (“Three White Horses”).  I’ve been following “Three White Horses” for a while, since it began popping up in a few shows earlier this year, and it’s become a song which I can listen to on repeat for a very long time, so I was very pleased to finally get to hear it live.

After the typical closer of “Tables and Chairs,” Bird and company returned to the stage for their encore, gathering once more around the old-timey mic for two more songs.  “If I Needed You” is a Townes Van Zandt cover which Bird has been playing live for a while now, and “Some Happy Day” is a cover of a Charley Patton tune.  (Look up the original some time, it’s drastically different in speed.)  “Some Happy Day” in particular gives Bird the always-welcome opportunity to let loose with his traditional fiddle chops, digging in and soaring on the solos.

There wasn’t any new ground broken at this show, but that’s not what we were after.  Overall, the show was a laid-back affair, perfect for a cold Minnesota evening: just enough to get your blood pumping before easing you back into a gentle sort of lull.

Setlist

  1. Instrumental
  2. Hole in the Ocean Floor
  3. Instrumental > The Naming of Things riff
  4. Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left
  5. Desperation Breeds
  6. Fiery Crash
  7. Danse Caribe
  8. Lazy Projector
  9. Orpheo Looks Back
  10. Eyeoneye
  11. Give It Away (acoustic)
  12. When That Helicopter Comes (acoustic; the Handsome Family cover)
  13. Sovay (acoustic)
  14. Meet Me Here at Dawn (acoustic; Cass McCombs cover)
  15. Railroad Bill (acoustic)
  16. Three White Horses
  17. Plasticities
  18. Fatal Shore
  19. Tables & ChairsEncore
  20. If I Needed You (acoustic; Townes Van Zandt cover)
  21. Some Happy Day (acoustic; Charley Patton cover)