By Gabriel Jones
The sound heard at the Greek Theatre on Sunday night was the sound of an artist reaching cruising altitude.
Andrew Bird is a most unlikely pop star – he came out on stage Sunday in khakis and a button-down shirt looking more like a suburban dad at a backyard barbecue, although with a little stubble now he at times recalls a better-kempt Noel Gallagher. And the professionalism and precise musicianship he brings often seem more appropriate for a classical or jazz concert; Bird, who initially trained as a classical violinist, even begins his shows often much like an orchestra’s dissonant swell before the start of the piece, letting the instruments – or, more precisely, the different sounds and layered tape loops of the instruments he’s playing – move from chaos to harmony.
- ||| Photos by Laurie Scavo
In past shows he’s often seemed driven by a nervous exuberant energy, by turns manic and playful and reserved, playing with an angular edgy brilliance. In Sunday’s show he seemed calmer and more confident, more relaxed and comfortable, having rounded out the edges. That mood may come from having an actual full (and exceptional) band backing him rather than having to conjure up the whole thing himself — through a virtuoso mastery of looping not seen this side of Jon Brion. Part of the effect may also come from the knowledge that his audience has grown up with him – they’re all a little older themselves — more comfortable and less worried about the future (at least their own), and can savor the moment and let it linger rather than needing to dart immediately off into another direction.
Even when he stumbled he exuded an easy confidence. Early in the show, rushing too soon into the lyrics of “Measuring Cups” before the obligatory opening “bum bum bum bum BUM,” he quickly caught himself and stopped the proceedings with “Hold up, hold up, we can’t forget that part. That’s a very important part, every word,” and then sang an impishly perfunctory few “bums” before restarting the song in earnest – a way to remind himself, and the audience, that, yes, it’s serious, but not too serious. Later, after an errant guitar note in “Lazy Projector,” he said with a relaxed grin, “It’s all right, ain’t it?”
And of course it was: Even those, the only mistakes in an otherwise technically brilliant set, felt more like playful improvisations that offered new textures and meanings to his songs. Bird, who’s long been celebrated for his live performances ”“ most often playing alone or with drummer Martin Dosh and relying on textured tape loops to fill out an orchestra-sized live sound – still has something of the young mad professor to him. His shows are still full of quintessential Andrew Bird moments, those times in the nebula when you’re not sure if the song is beginning or ending or going somewhere else entirely, when everything is thrown into the beaker at once and finds a new chemical reaction.
Bird also showed a new direction with a tour of old Americana throughout the show. After an explosive performance of “Eyeoneye,” he remarked, “That’s a pretty loud song for us. What do you do when you have a song like that in the middle of a set? You don’t keep raising the bar. So instead, this is what we call the ”˜old timey’ portion of the evening.” He then brought his backing musicians, guitarist Lonesome Jim and bassist Alan Hampton, around a single microphone, with Dosh just off to the side, for a folky three-part harmony hoedown rendition of “Give It Away” and “MX Missiles,” later returning to the format with covers of Townes Van Zandt and Charlie Patton songs during the encore. And as good as the band was throughout the show, it was during these moments – and similar moments when they harmonized like an Appalachia quartet, as in “Danse Caribe’s” transcendent vamp of “Here we go mistaking clouds for mountains” – that they reached ecstatic heights. Moving from there to a rendition of “Fatal Shore” that was as slow, sensuous, and intimate as anything he’s ever done, and then to a quirky and lush “Tables and Chairs” (“We were tired of being mild” is about as good an anthemic statement for Andrew Bird and his fans as there could be), Bird showed he’s only grown in versatility and virtuosity over the years.
Opening the show, Sharon Van Etten began with a dirge-like “All I Can” that gradually swelled to epic proportions, an oceanic sound that almost seemed wasted on the (then-) largely empty Greek.
Van Etten, who likely could make reading the health care bill build slowly to an epic climax, specializes in songs that circle around the same line, the same riff, the same emotion, digging deeper each time and adding (or stripping away) layers. For many of her songs on Sunday – “Warsaw,” “Kevin’s,” “Leonard,” and her new hit “Serpents” – she started off delicate yet both and weary and wary, like we’ve been down this road before but we’re convinced to try again, and off we go into the rush of emotion. In that she evokes a kind of inverted Aimee Mann, fragile on the outside with a hard core underneath that’s been betrayed by too many false promises, although there are moments when she throws her head back while singing, her eyes roll back, and she looks utterly transported – itself a transcendent moment that suggests maybe the promise is sometimes, even for a little while, enough. And then she’s back poised, composed, hard and driven, the image of how to get along when you have your emotions and yourself to take care of in the face of betrayal and broken promises.
Yet her stage banter shows a gentle sweet demeanor that’s still finding its way toward Bird’s kind of confident control – thanking the audience for their polite and appreciate applause, she remarked, “Well, it could be bras on stage, but it’s fine.” Then: “I don’t know where that came from. I can multitask. I don’t have to make sense while I multitask. Sharon, you’re not crazy.” And, later, looking around the beautiful environs of the Greek and noting how strange it was to be playing L.A.: “I’m used to playing on a cruise ship, so this is bizarre to me.” An utterly human statement, and human emotion, that showed, like many of her songs, that something good still grows out of the wounds.