By Jon Stone | @jwstone
Andrew Bird was last in town two-and-a-half years ago headlining our annual Pygmalion festival. I was new in town and I was still trying to get a feel for Champaign-Urbana's musical potential. I had listened to Bird's The Mysterious Production of Eggs and enjoyed it enough to check out his then new album Armchair Apocrypha.But, to be honest, I didn't have high expectations. I was sitting way in the back on the balcony and I heard it was only going to be Bird without a backing band. How good could it be?
It was one of the best concerts I have ever been to.
You can imagine, then, what it was like sitting on the third row last night at Foellinger auditorium.
Bird is a juggler; an acrobat. His records, while wonderful, conceal this. Until you have seen him build his intricate loops -- plucked pizzicato melody under several layers of bowed violin, under guitar, under whistles, under voice -- you just can't get a sense for his musicianship and mastery as an artist. It took me by complete surprise that first time a few years ago. Last night, I knew what I was in for and was not disappointed.
Part of what makes seeing Bird play live so special is that his complex looping process mixed with his quirky, spontaneous style generates the feeling that the audience is experiencing something completely new and unique. Last night, Bird, dressed in festive red and green flannel and corduroy, played great songs from his catalog, but none really sounded like they do on the records. Part of this, of course, is due to the fact that he is playing the songs solo, without percussion or bass as a back-drop; but it's more than that. After opening with "You Woke Me Up!" from Useless Creatures, he said that his long year of touring had got him thinking about the songs as they existed before they were recorded. "Back when the songs were magma," he said. I can't think of a better way to describe the music or the night: magma. Lovely, molten magma.
From there he played "Sweetbreads," an early version of "Darkmatter" (which you can find, if you're lucky, on the first of the three self-released, live Fingerlings records). In its early conception, the song was less about darkmatter and more about eating cow brains, with all, he said, the attending philosophical ramifications and complications: "the sound of neurons blinking." Next and also from Fingerlings came the live favorite, "Why?" which is as much acting as it is music making. Bird said it was about an old needy roommate who complained to him that "we weren't spending enough time together." The chorus, "damn you for being so easy going," became a frustrating theme, he said -- a pattern -- of several future relationships as well.
The rest of the night played out in a similar manner. Bird would introduce a song with a story and then play a phenomenal rendition of the tune. I loved the stories. He wasn't so talkative last time he came through -- it wasfun. Other standout moments for me included versions of my favorite songs from this year's Noble Beast,"Anonanimal" and "Natural Disaster." Lyrically, "Anonanimal" might be his best work to date, and "Natural Disaster" is its lovely foil on the album, but took on new life as a live tune.
Also, he mentioned his upcoming church residency gigs in Chicago and Minneapolis and had acquired two more of those rad horn speakers for the shows. He said he runs his violin through them and that they would essentially be the P.A. at those mostly-instrumental shows in the near future. He then played "Carrion Suite" (also from Useless Creatures) to get warm for them. Also great was a little story about the original chorus of "Imitosis," a line from a Sesame Street song (see below), and an impromptu visit from Dr. Stringz. Oh! and we got "Headsoak" -- a great old bluesy tune from "back in the Bowl of Fire days."
His encore was a sweet version of the old standard "Some of These Days" and "Weather Systems."
What a night.
[A shout-out, also, to Urbana's You and Yourn who opened the show. The auditorium could have been a bit big for their britches, but they filled it out nicely (though, work on that between-song banter, guys.) Check out their new Parasol Records release "It Would Make Things Worse".]
Andrew Bird set list: Sweetbreads / Why? / Tenuousness / Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left / Natural Disaster / Oh No / Carrion Suite / The Happy Birthday Song / Headsoak / We All Live in a Capital I (Sesame Street cover) / Imitosis / Anonanimal / Dr. Stringz (request from the audience) /Scythian Empire / Encore: Some of These Days / Weather Systems
For those of you who, like me, are interested in musical genealogy, concurrent with the Bowl of Fire days, Andrew Bird played violin on several of the early Squirrel Nut Zippers records. Remember them? They were better, I think, than the swing-dance fad that contained them. Writing this post reminded me of one of their best songs and videos, "Ghost of Stephen Foster" (from their 1998 record, Perennial Favorites). Check it out; Andrew Bird is all over it (if not actually in it): "Ghost of Stephen Foster"