Andrew Bird Makes “Bein’ Green” Look Easy

By Garth Brody

Flickr
Flickr

Andrew Bird stepped out silently before the Northampton audience Thursday night at the Calvin Theater. Standing alone at center stage, he wielded a violin and a quietly commanding stage presence. He said nothing before he began his first song, an instrumental piece layering delicately plucked violin textures in structured loops. The almost medieval sounding introduction came to a cathartic head as Bird finally slid his bow across the strings, unleashing a sweeping legato melody that wove together the syncopated staccato plucks.

Bird’s taciturn overture came on the heels of his opener and collaborator Martin Dosh’s set. Dosh, which is the name under which he releases albums, later joined Bird on the drums about two-thirds of the way through the headliner’s set. For his own set, he manipulated a large synth switchboard and played electric keyboard and xylophone in addition to his native drum kit. His music, which was entirely instrumental, matched up complex and often ethereal tonal loops with a swinging and precise percussion style. The resultant effect was something like Buddy Rich meets Boards of Canada. He releases music on the anticon label, which is home to artists like Why? and 13 & God.

After Bird’s impressive instrumental introduction, the performer said only a few quiet words about his last visit to Northampton, in October 2008, before introducing his next song. Setting the neurotic tone of much of his lyrical content, he described his habitual performance of the tune as a sort of “safety blanket” for his emotional well-being. As the laughter subsided, he started into the bluesy “Why?” from his acclaimed 2001 album, “The Swimming Hour.” Though the song was originally recorded with his erstwhile band, Bowl of Fire, he chose to perform it alone. The angular violin stabs of the instrumental lead-in became even more stark without the smooth vibraphone accompaniment from the album. He also altered the vocal timing of the song, syncopating his lyrical delivery so drastically and so esoterically that to attempt singing along would be a foolhardy and quixotic task. He took similar liberties with the vocals for his other songs all evening long.

Next, the crowd was treated to “A Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left” from Bird’s solo debut album “The Mysterious Production of Eggs.” As the album’s title seems to contain a sly reference to the artist’s name, the song’s title describes quite well the physical style of the performer, whose head jerks to the side repeatedly – sometimes with alarming rapidity – while he plays, especially during the more spirited songs. “A Nervous Tic Motion” is certainly one of those spirited songs, with a brisk tempo and a subdued dynamic that allows unexpected accents to jump to the sonic foreground.

Bird did a very curious thing after finishing “A Nervous Tic Motion” by informing the audience that his next song, “The Naming of Things” (another track from “The Mysterious Production of Eggs”) would be played only to provide thematic context for the song to follow. While some audience members may have taken this as a joke, Bird actually cut the tune short, mid-lyric, hastily declaring: “that’s most of the song.”

He then quickly transitioned into “The Lazy Projector,” a song he described as being concerned with memory and its subconsciously selective nature. In another winking lyrical gesture, Bird grabbed some lyrics (“time’s a crooked bow”) from his older “Armchairs” and transplanted them into this relatively new song. Ever the clever and playful songwriter, Bird seems to have added this touch in the name of musical self-reflexivity.

He proceeded to relate his humorous frustrations with his work for the upcoming “The Muppets” movie, for which he penned a few tunes. “I wrote all these good songs … about Muppets and how they feel about each other,” he said, but apparently the film’s production team decided to use only one of them in the final cut. As an act of defiance, he played one of those songs, in which he imagines Kermit the Frog walking through the halls of his mansion in Malibu.

One of the big emotional peaks of the night came in the form of a song called “The Sifters,” which has appeared on his most recent live album, “Fingerlings 4.” A gently melancholic ballad, “The Sifters” is full of heart-breaking lines like: “What if you were seventy-five and I were nine? Would I still visit you, bring you cookies in an old folks’ home?” The performer must have noticed a few teary-eyed faces among the audience, because as soon as the song came to a close, he asked, “Everyone OK?”

The bouncy “Tenuousness” from 2009’s “Noble Beast” subsequently picked up the mood in the room. With its plucked violin line and Appalachian folk feel, the jaunty tune is reminiscent of artists like Fleet Foxes. Adding to the fun, and returning to the Muppet theme, he played his cover of “Bein’ Green.” The song will appear on the upcoming Muppet tribute album.

At this point, Dosh came to the stage to join Bird on the drums. They played the waltzing “Effigy” before Bird announced an impromptu instrumental song. He had apparently written the tune while riding his bike on the lovely paved trail between Amherst and Northampton. The pair went on to play the wistful bossa nova of “Plasticities,” another warmly textured instrumental piece and a jumpy shuffle that has apparently yet to be recorded, somewhat reminiscent of “Graceland”-era Paul Simon.

He closed the set with the fan favorite “Tables and Chairs,” the penultimate track from “The Mysterious Production of Eggs.” The rousingly anthemic song sets a darkly humorous post-apocalyptic scene wherein there will be no more financial institutions, but you can be sure that “there will be snacks.”

One spirited standing ovation later, the duo returned to play a three-song encore. The brief closing set included “Happy Day” from the live album “Fingerlings 2,” the moody “So Much Wine” by Chicago alternative country group The Handsome Family and the soulful “I’m Goin’ Home” by Delta blues legend Charley Patton. After another well-earned standing ovation, they left the stage until next time.

Garth Brody can be reached at [email protected]