Andrew Bird, Hideout Block Party, September 24, 2011
Well, the final night of this year’s round of Gezellegheid concerts is upon us. This show happened to fall upon the day of that alleged end of the world business, which was acknowledged by Bird in his typical sly way at the end of the set, when he treated the audience to a more stripped down version of “Tables & Chairs”, the most cheerful song about the apocalypse that there ever was.
This night had a very similar setlist as the prior nights, but again, some of the songs are still being tinkered with. The new song, with the repeated line of “Pulaski at night”, is still a work in progress — he’s got all the parts but is still trying to put them in order. It’s a very powerful song which seems to resonate with the crowd. I remember the melody getting stuck in my head after hearing him perform it at last year’s MCA shows, and it still holds true — days later I’ve still got it stuck in my head.
These shows are some of Bird’s favorites to perform, and he clearly loves the chance to do them at home. He mentioned that while he does the shows in other cities, the ones in Chicago work the best. It’s the perfect environment for a show — and as one of those curmudgeonly people who is becoming less and less able to tolerate people chit-chatting through shows, I appreciate the hushed, somewhat solemn nature, as it keeps people from talking the whole time.
The freedom of these shows is what I really appreciate. After the show, Mel and I had a conversation about Bird and his physical performance, and while that’s her story to tell, not mine, I can say that these concerts have seen Bird be more physically animated than he has in a while now. Years and years of jumping up and down on stage takes a toll on the body, something that Bird’s alluded to a handful of times, so his physical performance has been a bit more low-key lately. He makes up for it in smaller movements — the curling of fingers, grasping for something — and with his voice. His voice has always been a fine instrument, especially over the past six or so years as he’s really grown into the style of music that suits him best. (Listen, I love Thrills and it is in fact one of my favorites but there are songs on there that are so clearly a very young man literally trying to find his voice; listen to his discography in order and you can hear him mature.) But in these “old timey” sections, where everything is so exposed, there’s a new boldness, a hint of an edge that is exciting to me. Bird’s voice has always excelled at conveying fragility, but hearing the strength that he brings to tracks like “Something Biblical”, “Railroad Bill”, and “Three White Horses” has me excited for what the next steps in his musical career will bring.
Andrew Bird – Museum of Contemporary Art, December 2011
For the second day of what I have tentatively dubbed Birdmas — stop judging me, I’m tired — we had a setlist that was mostly similar to the first night’s, with only a few deviations, including an acoustic, folk-tinged rendition of “MX Missiles” which had both Mel, our sometimes-blogger and full-time fellow Bird fan, and myself making some pretty impressive flappy hands in our seats. I’d just remarked earlier that day that I don’t think I’ve ever heard that one before in concert, and to both hear it and have it done as part of the “old-timey” set, where Bird and company unplug and cluster around a single mic, was mostly more than I could have ever asked for.
Bird continues to use these shows as playgrounds to flesh out ideas, both new and olds. There are certain instrumental pieces which he always works into his shows which stay the same, mostly, but there are always tweaks to his phrasings that help modify the pieces. I’m fascinated by what he’s doing with the somewhat reimagined “Naming of Things” — the original is one of my favorites, but watching him slow it down and rearrange the words to fit into the slightly more meditative version he’s been doing has been a neat look at a work in progress. ”Carrion Suite” is another instrumental piece that he’s been playing for years, before it even showed up on Useless Creatures, and while it hasn’t altered much from its original form, I’m curious to see if it ever turns into something else. He continues to tease the audience with “Skin, Is My”, except he never quite gets to the vocal part — it’s an interesting choice of a song to play as an instrumental, as the opening riff is immediately recognizable to seasoned fans. ”Trimmed and Burning”, a song which Bird has been playing in one form or another for years but never committed to an album, continues to morph, with Bird choosing different phrases to hold out and repeat each night. He keeps tinkering with it, lately adding a bit more ornamentation and inflection into his voice, complementing the trills and runs he picks out on the violin. I love what this song is doing, and the addition of Alan Hampton on upright bass has given it an extra flair.
What Bird calls the “old timey” section of the show has never shone quite as brightly as it does here at these concerts. With Bird, Hampton, and Nora O’Connor clustered around a single microphone, you can almost imagine that they’re singing in your living room. It’s shockingly intimate, with the mic picking up every stray breath, every beat against the body of a guitar, every tap against the floor. The highs and lows of the music are emphasized in this more natural setting, the crescendos grander, the hushes making you hold your breath so you don’t miss a beat. I’ve never connected more with the songs off of Hand of Glory than I have at these Gezellegheid shows, but now, I feel like I get them in a way I didn’t, just listening to the album in my own home. The songs — particularly ”Something Biblical” — resonate with me on a different level after seeing Bird strip them all back down to basics.
And in the end, that’s what these shows are about. They give Bird a chance to experiment in front of a curious audience. Particularly with the unplugged songs, he’s getting the chance to show the public some of the music that he’s been playing for twenty years or more now, but which has before now always been sidelined for the bigger, the more experimental, the bombastic. There will always be a place in my heart for the theatrics of show-stoppers like “Fake Palindromes” (oh, will there ever), but the quiet moments mean just as much to me, maybe even more these days.
Things you learn at a Gezellegheid show: Andrew Bird’s broken his nose five, maybe now six times. Trivia, for those of you who like those things. There’s a context for this, but you almost had to be there, and I’ve also sworn not to make any bird puns over the topic.
Potential medical complications aside, these shows — Bird’s mostly annual holiday-time tradition in Chicago and other major cities — are Bird’s playground, his chance to really dig into music, experiment with new melodies, and figure out what direction he’s taking his music to next. The Gezellegheid shows are where some of the earliest incarnations of songs that wound up comprising Break It Yourself were shown off, and he revisited some of those ideas last night at Fourth Presbyterian Church. ”Eyeoneye”, the lead single from the new album, had its roots as an instrumental song called “Oh Baltimore”. It took a while for the much louder, more typically-indie-rock revamped album version to grow on me, as I loved the stripped down instrumental version I’d been hearing. Having the chance to hear it in its original form once more was a huge bit of excitement for me.
We’re continuing to see the deconstruction of Bird’s older songs as he takes them apart and makes something new out of them. He also debuted a few new songs, one which is just a melody with no words yet, and one based on a melody that he was playing with at last year’s MCA shows (they took the place of the Gezellegheid shows in Chicago) and has now gone back and set words to.
While these shows have been traditionally solo affairs in the past, this year, Bird brought some help. He was accompanied by bassist Alan Hampton for much of the show (on upright bass and guitar), and frequent collaborator Nora O’Connor on vocals and guitar for much of the second set.
The first night of Bird’s three night stint at Fourth Presbyterian was exquisite. I remarked after the show that usually the first night is more uneven, like Bird’s still finding his footing. Based on this, he’s already got it down; I can only hope this means the next two nights will take us to even more transcendent places.
Hole in the Ocean Floor
Instrumental > Naming of Things lyrics
Three White Horses (instrumental version)
Giant of Illinois (the Handsome Family cover)
Instrumental (Skin Is My riff)
New Song (untitled, w/ AH)
Fatal Shore (w/ AH)
Trimmed and Burning (w/AH)
Give It Away (w/ NO, AH)
Three White Horses (w/ NO, AH)
Lusitania (w/ NO, AH)
If I Needed You (Townes Van Zandt cover, w/ NO, AH)
Something Biblical (w/ NO, AH)
The Sad Milkman (Handsome Family cover, w/ NO, AH)
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.
Hole in the Ocean Floor
Instrumental > The Naming of Things riff
Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left
Orpheo Looks Back
Give It Away (acoustic)
When That Helicopter Comes (acoustic; the Handsome Family cover)
Meet Me Here at Dawn (acoustic; Cass McCombs cover)
Railroad Bill (acoustic)
Three White Horses
Tables & ChairsEncore
If I Needed You (acoustic; Townes Van Zandt cover)
So this blog has been on a bit of a hiatus — real life took over for me in a big way and I just haven’t had the time to devote to the site. I’m hoping to give it a kick in the pants at the new year, so keep an eye out for that. Meanwhile, I couldn’t let the moment pass without sharing a song from a great new-to-me artist. A friend of mine posted a link on Facebook to a video from Luke Winslow-Smith, and I was instantly smitten. Check it out.
Winslow-King’s a young guy who has a timeless sound. He pulls together elements of dixieland jazz, gospel, and country and makes something beautiful. He was very recently signed to Chicago’s Bloodshot Records, who will be re-releasing his most recent album, The Coming Tide, in March 2013. Look forward to much more great music from Winslow-King.
For fans of: Justin Townes Earle, Robbie Fulks, Thrills-era Andrew Bird, Preservation Hall Jazz Band
The blog’s been quiet lately — sometimes life gets like that, you know — but I’d be remiss in not popping back up to share with you a new song from Whitehorse, the combined husband-wife duo of Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland.
I don’t have much, but I am a rich man.
Like all of Whitehorse’s music, this song is sexy. I don’t know how they do it, but you put Luke and Melissa together and oof, sign me up. Their most recent album, The Fate of the World Depends on this Kiss, is out now on Six Shooter Records. Catch them at Schubas on October 13th. I’ve seen them several times now and they always put on an amazing show.