No one performs live quite like Andrew Bird. There’s a reason NPR calls him art rock. Rather than play through a defined set list consisting largely of his latest album, Break it Yourself, Bird takes an alternative approach, playing random songs here and there from his two-decade portfolio. Additionally, Bird never makes his audience settle for songs he’s already recorded.
Bird opened his show at Auditorium Theatre on Saturday by doing what he does best – standing alone in his stocking feet, plucking at a violin. Then, before a sea of eager ears, he used multitrack recorders and loop pedals to create a series of violin loop recordings, plucking out intricate riffs while gradually adding long, melodious pulls to create one of his signature layered soundscapes. The ruby-colored stage lights framed his tall, lanky figure as he slipped quietly into a whistle and stopped looping momentarily to plunk gently on a glockenspiel. A sock monkey – out of place, slumped – sat guard under a flowering, two-headed phonograph. As this staple of Bird’s live performances began to spin, it slowly picked up speed, distorting the dying echoes of the opening number and providing a poignant visual work of art to complement the intricacy of the sound it was changing.
What I’ve just described is hardly conventional fare for an avant-garde museum opening, let alone the Auditorium Theatre. Bird chose a venue that is often reserved for classical performances, with names of old composers engraved in gold on either side of the stage and fancy, overpriced and well-stocked bars positioned on every level of the venue to catch showgoers before they reach their plush seats. However, the venue was deemed “acoustically perfect” by the performer himself, a characteristic that would benefit most musical acts. And Bird’s unique, improvisation-heavy live method of performance is especially suited to well-engineered space.
Along with the beauty and appropriateness of the venue itself, the show was produced in a manner befitting the talented Northwestern alum. Each ambient effect was another cherry on top of Bird’s delectable performance. Behind the band hung intricate twists of white fabric on sparse wire mesh, which twirled gently in the nonexistent breeze as the musician built up each layered musical confection. The light show was both texturally varied and richly colored, fading in and out in tornadoes and bars of jewel-toned light. Only rarely did the lighting ever actively compete for the audience’s attention, and when it did there was a definite statement behind the jarring interruption. At the commencement of “Plasticities,” the stage lit up with dozens of tiny, blinding pinpricks of light. Star-like, they reflected the performer’s experience in the limelight back onto us for several brief moments.
This clear reversal of musician’s norms is explored perhaps more subtly in the language of Bird’s intricate sonic universe. Rather than attempt to tackle contemporary world issues, wallow in romantic endeavors or speak to external affairs, Andrew Bird’s songs are entirely introspective. His lyrics sound uncannily like the diary entries of an insecure and fully human genius. Once stripped of their erudite lexicon and esoteric inspirations – for instance, “Eyeoneye” began as a song about a teratoma – the typical Andrew Bird song speaks to the internal ramblings, deep deliberations and insecurities that every human being believes are his alone. One such metacognitive theme was evoked in Bird’s onstage explanation of his song “The Lazy Projector,” a piece that likens human memory to a “lazy projector” or a corrupt film editor who “[splices one’s] face from the scene.”
“It’s questioning who’s in charge of how we remember…[how] we think of things in the past,” he said.
Memory is indeed fallible, and teratomas do exist outside of Ripley's Believe it or Not! However, to write a song about the corrupt editing process of human recall, or a tumor composed of foreign tissues like teeth and hair, is to become an innovator in the world of genre. With these songs and others, Bird has carved himself a brand new niche in the songwriting world. Partly because of the unique topics about which he writes, Bird’s music strikes home to a lot of people, including himself. His arm movements during the performance were jerky, quick and violent – practically those of a man possessed. His voice broke over words that held particular import and uniquely rich melodic phrases, and at times he bent double over whichever instrument (he is proficient in five) that he happened to be handling at the time. His body movements support my long-standing hypothesis – that Bird is as neurotic as his lyrics suggest.
Like his ever-evolving musical style, however, Bird’s persona is unclassifiable. Just as I had him pegged as an anxious intellectual, he would break out into a jazzy mélange of plucking and whistling, shaking his head in a joyful, rhythmic ecstasy. Angst-ridden lyrics aside, he was having a hell of a lot of fun at the Auditorium.
Bird’s ability to enjoy himself musically has always attracted a lot of tactful and talented collaboration. Contrary to rumors, Annie Clark of St. Vincent didn’t end up performing despite her own performance’s proximity to Bird’s and their intertwined musical history. Instead, Nora O’Connor, a longtime friend and collaborator, filled in for Clark on the duet Lusitania along with providing complementing harmonies intermittently throughout the show.
Bird also brought in a backing band after a few opening numbers of solo loop-crafting. The instrumental backing freed him up a bit to jam out and interact some more with the crowd, an aspect of Bird’s performance that is relatively new but definitely budding. His emerald-lit rendition of “Bein’ Green,” a familiar tune of Kermit the Frog’s that he covered for the newest Muppet movie, was a crowd favorite. While performing “Why?,” he answered the song’s repeated question – “why’d you do that?” – by imagining the thoughts of his audience. “Do what? I’m catching a show, it’s pretty good…I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he joked, tickling his seated fans from the distant stage.
Despite his sweet and tactful interactions with his fans, however, it was clear to all who watched him that Bird was playing for himself. Much of his set list consisted of songs that I, a relatively seasoned Birdwatcher, didn’t recognize. Many were fiddle-ridden, a characteristic of his oldest and newest work and his instrumental improvisations. When he finally lapsed into a recognizable melody – “Danse Caribe,” a plaintive tune evocative of breaking waves under a tropical sunset – it was with a casual shake of his head and a barely-detectable smirk. And the music itself, especially while he was performing solo, was so involved that even a multitalented and multitasking man like Bird could hardly have extra mental room to accommodate the needs of a few thousand people. Instead, he focused on impressing himself, resulting in work that transcended any possible expectations. His faculties onstage were so devoted to the music and performance-crafting process that even his extensive vocabulary, so present during songwriting, was eschewed during his performance in favor of a straightforward expression of musical flow.
“I’m having a lovely time playing,” he admitted toward the end of his set before throwing himself into an electrifying version of “Fake Palindromes.”
Good, because we had a lovely time watching.