Review and all photos by ©Stefania Ianne 2016
Andrew Bird is an unusual figure in North American music. First off, he is too elegant and sophisticated for mainstream, both physically and mentally. The music offered by Bird over the years is an intricate maze of notes and impossible tempos, seasoned with a good dose of a singular, distinctive whistling. Born in 1973, Bird candidly stated that when he was 22 he thought that the music in vogue at the time was boring as hell. The boring year we are talking about is 1995: Kurt Cobain had died recently, grunge and crossover were the dominating forces. Exciting times, someone might say, but not for Andrew Bird. Sarcastic and unique, Bird has a natural talent. His main tool? The violin, an unusual choice, the classical instrument par excellence, and more popular in bluegrass and folk than in rock. He learned to play the violin with the Suzuki method, which treats music as a language and, as such, considers it easier to learn at a very young age. Bird started learning when he was 4 and he has assimilated musical language in a totally individual, unique way.
We do not see Andrew Bird on tour very often. The reason why we find him on stage in London tonight is that this is one of the few European dates of his tour to promote his latest album Are You Serious (Loma Vista). He arrives on stage at the Roundhouse wearing a heavy scarf around his neck, probably to preserve his vocal cords. Unlike many superstars, he is the first to reach the stage, followed by a group of exceptional musicians who also accompanied him during the Are You Serious recording. For a minute, I picture in my head what the interview is like for musicians who want to become part of the Bird Group: for sure you must be a music college professor to be able to pass the selection.
Bird displays a suffering face, the permanently dissatisfied expression of someone who always demands the best, first and foremost from himself. He is thin and elegant in a classic, slightly sparkling, jacket. He projects a weary elegance, the appearance of an agonising intellectual in conflict with himself, a sort of existentialist. After a brief instrumental introduction, the band starts with ‘Capsized’, the story of a breakup, the first track on the album, a safe concert opener. Bird has constantly revisited and experimented with this song during his concerts, especially during his solo performances, when he was perhaps too heavily dependent on the loop pedal, as a modern one-man-band. This is the first time I see him with a supporting band, and it works well. I perceive him as nervous, as usual, but slightly more relaxed thanks to the presence of the band. His continuous switching from violin to guitar, from guitar to violin to voice works smoothly. His performance is very theatrical, his body language tells us that he believes strongly in his new songs. His voice has matured, it’s now richer in character and shades. Tonight, in his own words, he has a problem with tempo and rhythm. He needs to start a few songs again because of their unusual rhythm patterns. It’s as if tonight they appear to be too complex even for their author. The band is well prepared and patient, their presence amplifies Bird’s musical skills. The band is unstoppable, even when an amplifier explodes in the middle of a song. The entire venue holds its breath. At the end of the song, Bird gives voice to everyone’s fears. For a split second he had also thought: ‘It’s over, the worst nightmare for a musician after the Bataclan is coming true for me too’. ‘I closed my eyes’, he tells us.
Ted Poor on drums leaves me speechless, performing countless, jazzy rhythms: a revelation. At the opposite end of the stage, the presence of Blake Mills on guitar is seemingly shy and polite, but actually fundamental. In an interview, Andrew Bird declared that Blake Mills is the only guitarist who can understand his tempos, who can go beyond musical stereotypes: essentially, they speak the same language. I shall not forget to mention the solid bass player Alan Hampton, who is also an exceptional backing vocalist. I was waiting anxiously for the musical fight that Andrew Bird masterfully plays in a duet with Fiona Apple in ‘Left Handed Kisses’, from Are you Serious. Tonight, the obvious choice would have been for a local guest vocalist to replace Apple. Bird surprises us instead, and divides himself, ‘an obvious case of split personality’, he explains: on one side of the microphone, he will be himself; when on the other side of the microphone, we should imagine the presence of Fiona Apple. In Bird’s words, during the composition of the song, a second voice started taking shape forcefully in his head and, after some thought, Fiona Apple had become the obvious choice for a couple quarrel. All of which has magically been made into a video, apparently lubricated with plenty of whisky.
The concert is, in a word, perfect, well-rehearsed; not much room for improvisation tonight as it would be with a Bird solo gig. The intensity and quality of the performance are outstanding, although Bird’s nervous movements and his writhing around while producing his words are still the same. He seems to have a bone of contention with his right shoe, which gets constantly kicked off from his foot and then nonchalantly put back on for the following song. ‘Pulaski At Night’ might be the obvious conclusion for the first part of the performance. Bird tells us that it is indeed a tribute to his hometown Chicago and was inspired by the request of a Thai musician friend of his. They were driving around Chicago to show him the city and the guest took everyone by surprise by saying: ‘I want to see Pulaski at night’. A not such great road dedicated to an important figure in the history of Chicago has now turned from private joke to public knowledge. The slightly oriental tune played by the violin conquers the audience, while Bird whispers: ‘starting over’.
The band’s return on stage for the encore is amazing, as the musicians gather around a solitary microphone. The instruments are all acoustic now, it feels as intimate as a family performance. Time is kept by beating their boots on the wooden floor. They start with the cover of a Neil Young classic, ‘Harvest’. The song takes a familiar shape, but feels improved by ageing, like a bottle of whisky, while Bird’s voice sounds superior to Young’s feeble albeit charming falsetto. The acoustic version of ‘Give It Away’ and of the last tune ‘The New Saint Jude’ are performed with a series of strategic pauses, just like a consummate artist might do. The venue is in Andrew Bird’s hands. The evening ends with a smile: the story of the distracted ‘Professor Socks’, protagonist of a song written for a children’s TV series that Bird created a few years ago. As we leave the room, we are not sure whether to laugh or whistle to express our sarcastic joie de vivre. A girl faints on the stairs leading to the street: obviously the Bird experience, seasoned with too much beer, has been too intense.
A Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left
Are You Serious
Truth Lies Low
Left Handed Kisses
Three White Horses
Valleys of the Young
Pulaski at Night
Harvest (Neil Young cover)
Give It Away
The New Saint Jude