Andrew Bird; Lincoln Theater, Washington DC & Cat’s Cradle, Carrboro, NC

Hideout, December 2012

Hideout, December 2012

So it seems like every year I do one of these – a semi-vacation to some other random city to see Andrew Bird. It’s a bit like a pilgrimage, if catching a couple of concerts and then spending a few days pretending that I live somewhere else can be counted as a pilgrimage.  By my count, Washington DC and Carrboro are the eighth and ninth cities I’ve been fortunate enough to see Bird in (other entries into the Bird Club: Chicago, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Ann Arbor, Louisville, Nashville, Atlanta).

It’s not a pilgrimage, but in some ways, maybe it is.

Monday was a heavy day for me – I spent a good long while at the Newseum, which despite the kitschy name is actually pretty intense. A gallery displaying all of the winners of the Pulitzer Prize for photography: war, death, destruction, terrorism, loss. A display on historic cases worked on by the FBI: same. Berlin Wall: same. 9/11: same. The struggle for civil rights: same.  You go in expecting a history of broadcasting, but you get a history of the United States instead, and it’s often not easy to watch.

I followed that up with a visit to the National Museum of the American Indian, which, while not quite as intense as the Newesum, still leaves plenty of room for serious reflection. How many times have you heard stories of Native American peoples in their own words? Not many, right? Think back to every museum exhibit on our First Peoples that you’ve seen, think about how artifacts are presented without context, think about how their artifacts were taken from them as surely as their lands and their heritage and their lives were. Think about all of that, and then go through this museum and tell me you don’t come out feeling significantly contemplative.

All that to say: it was a long, hard day for me, in a city a long way from home, far from the familiar.

But Andrew Bird is familiar. In a very real way, Bird – with his Chicago roots and his bittersweet songs about the city he’s left behind – is home for me.

And lately, Bird’s music is coming home, too.

Last year, both Mel and I remarked on the way that, aided and abetted by Tift Merritt at the Gezellegheid concerts, Bird’s music has been more and more inflected with a hearty dose of country twang.  For all the years he’s spent perfecting the art of being an indie-rock playing, looping-pedal stomping sensation, Bird’s roots lie in the traditional, and that’s abundantly clear during his “Hands of Glory” tour.  On the road in support of his new album, Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of…, a collection of Handsome Family cover songs, Bird lets the country vibe take control, helped along by Merritt, and Eric Haywood on pedal steel. Alan Hampton is back, too, on upright bass, and the always delightful Kevin O’Donnell is back on drums, bringing a joyful, heavily jazz-influenced style back to Bird’s style.

Although this is the beginning of the tour, the songs are already tight and the band plays very well together. For perhaps the first time ever, though, I’ve seen two Bird shows in a row where he didn’t deviate from the set list. It could be a function of the new band, it could just be that these are the songs he’s worked up to have this specific sound, for this specific tour. Who knows. What they played worked, and worked well, though. The revised Handsome Family tunes (check out his version of “Far From Any Road”, which gained some measure of fame lately due to being the theme song of True Detective – Bird’s version sounds just close enough to the original to be familiar, but that’s about it) mesh seamlessly with his own revised tunes (see: the revival of “Greenland”, a far twangier “Danse Caribe” and “Give It Away” than I’ve ever heard before).

Country suits Bird, and it suits him well.  For the first time in a while, Bird looks like he’s having fun up there. I get it, music can be a grind – I sing in a band that plays shitty dive bars maybe a couple of times a month and I get tired of it, I can’t imagine doing it as often as someone like Bird does.  I get losing the joy of it for a lot of your set, until you really hone in on that handful of songs that keep you going. So it’s so pleasing to see Bird light and easy on his feet, walking the tightrope that is his live show.

Sunday and Monday’s shows at DC’s Lincoln Theater felt slightly tentative. He’s still settling into the tour, the venue was a little more formal than perhaps best suits the types of songs and stories he’s telling. But tonight at Cat’s Cradle, everything clicked into place. The setlist was slightly different tonight, particularly for the encore, but Bird’s infectious joy over playing music that is maybe the closest to his heart was on full display.

Bird comes back to roots music whenever he’s trying to figure out what direction to go in next, but I’ll be honest, I wouldn’t mind if he stayed with it just a little while longer.

Setlists

June 8/9, Lincoln Theater

Instrumental (solo)
Hole in the Ocean Floor (solo)
Plasticities (solo)
Trimmed and Burning
Give It Away
Tin Foiled (*)
Greenland
Far From Any Road (Be My Hand) (*)
Frogs Singing (*)
Near Death Experience Experience
Drunk By Noon (*)
Three White Horses
Pulaski At Night
Danse Caribe
Don’t Be Scared (*)
—-
Cathedral in the Dell (*)
My Sister’s Tiny Hands (*)
Orpheo Looks Back
Tables and Chairs

 June 10, Cat’s Cradle

Instrumental (solo)
Hole in the Ocean Floor (solo)
Plasticities (solo)
Trimmed and Burning
Give It Away
Tin Foiled (*)
Greenland
The Sad Milkman (*)
Frogs Singing (*)
Near Death Experience Experience
Three White Horses
Pulaski At Night
Danse Caribe
Don’t Be Scared (*)
—-
MX Missiles
Something Biblical
Drunk By Noon (*)
Tables and Chairs

* = The Handsome Family cover