Andrew Bird performing earlier this year at Coachella.
I first heard Andrew Bird back in 2005, when he released Andrew Bird & the Mysterious Production of Eggs. And as much as I’d like to take credit for the discovery, I was tipped off by one of the genial sound pushers at the Music Trader – a place where, for years, I spent more afternoons than I’d like to recollect.
At the time, I was unaware that the Chicago violinist was already six albums deep into his career, had worked extensively with Squirrel Nut Zippers, or had transitioned from bandleader (Andrew Bird’s Bowl of Fire) into a solo artist.
But I really liked what I heard, and it wasn’t long before I was intent on seeing him live.
Until his stop at Spreckels Theatre last weekend, I had only accomplished that feat three times – once in the cozy confines of the Belly Up, and twice in the expansive chaos of Coachella. All were intriguing performances, but none the perfect setting for Bird’s exquisitely produced, oddball world. It just takes a certain kind of backdrop to truly showcase his unique arrangements of loop pedals and whistling; xylophone and violin; guitar and singing.
With its cushy theatre seats and century-old ornate architecture, however, Spreckels was up to the challenge.
Dressed in a denim shirt and khakis, Bird took the stage alone shortly after 9 p.m. Standing in the spotlight, he began collecting violin loops -- playing a few bars, plucking and deliberately bowing to extract a drone – all in equal measure. He whistled into the microphone and into the violin, and before long, it was apparent that he was beginning the show with the ethereal, 8 1/2 minute “Hole in the Ocean Floor,” from his latest release, Break It Yourself.
Other than Bird’s trademark double-headed, crimson-lined, spinning gramophones, and a strategically placed sock monkey who seemed to be wearing a suit, the stage was minimally adorned. Four, Escher-esque, corkscrew-shaped objects hung from ceiling, but the palpable atmosphere was created by the casting of shadows and the music itself.
With eyes closed tightly, the Birdman wildly waved his hands, pointed fingers at the crowd and seemed unable to control the movement of his feet while he plucked, strummed, sang and whistled his way through a seamless introduction.
And as the quiet atmospherics of ”…Ocean Floor” gave way to the restrained cool of the Bowl of Fire-era “Why?,” the transition was so perfectly executed that it was impossible to detect until well into the new song.
It wasn’t long before Bird was joined by three additional players. Adding bass, another guitar and drums rounded things out, but by that point, the dead-silent-other-than-clapping audience was already captivated.
“It’s been a while,” he said. “Nice to see you again.”
After the band swapped its electric instruments for acoustic ones and huddled at the front of the stage, the low-key frontman informed the crowd they were now entering the “old timey” portion of the show. Starting with a stripped-down version of “Give It Away,” the next few songs featured throwback arrangements, and the announcement was made that an entire album of old-timey tunes was coming in the fall.
Where the crowd had been dead silent for most of the night (false starts and all), they loosened a bit after that. And so did Bird -- he started introducing songs and eliciting laughter with things like, “Here’s one about that guy at the end of the bar. Spending too much time by himself, reading sci-fi novels and such,” and, “We thought after playing Frisbee all day we’d end up with a mellow set, but that’s not what we got.”
Although Bird’s straight-faced charm was a welcomed addition, the focus remained firmly on the music throughout the night, and as colored lights projected their shadows and shapes behind them, the quartet ripped through a beautifully varied set.
Whether it was carefully orchestrated sections or flat-out dissonant noise, it all seemed perfectly in line with an artist who has worked very hard to create his own sound.
Bird left the stage to rousing applause and returned to knock out two covers (sans drummer): Townes Van Zant’s “If I Needed You” and the traditional Alabama folkie “Railroad Bill.”
It was an appropriate end to a near-perfect evening of music.
I can only imagine what those in the crowd who have been following him for his entire career must have been feeling. For me, it was one of those “finally!” moments, at long last being able to witness this original artist in a perfect setting. But in this age of auto-tuned disposable filler, I’m sure even the most uninitiated walked away from this one with a smile on their face.