Holiday wishes were granted to Chicago music fans with a series of uniquely intimate performances by Andrew Bird. The multi-instrumentalist troubadour played a series of four sold-out shows appropriately entitled “Gezellingheid”, a Dutch word loosely translated to “coziness” and referring to a warm, affable, harmonious atmosphere. The aim was to construct a solo-symphonic experience primarily featuring Bird’s compositions for violin, in which the audience would be both “lifted and comforted as we head into another cold and dark winter”.
The performances were the culmination of his 2009 US tour and held at the city’s historic Fourth Presbyterian Church. Apparently Bird chose the venue so his music could encompass “the atmosphere of the space and the season”. The church’s main sanctuary was draped in beauty, detail, and history. Between the soaring wood-carved arched ceilings, elaborate etchings, chandeliers, modest wreaths and impressive stained glass windows (better known as The Great West Windows), I was expecting a treat.
Perched on a stool equipped with his violin, guitar, xylophone and assorted pedals, Bird was backed by a double-belled Janus horn, and framed by four of his trademark custom-made Specimen Gramophone speakers. Unfortunately Bird injured his foot during a previous “Gezellingheid” performance in Minneapolis, limiting his movement.
After a subtle bow of acknowledgement Bird set into his violin creating an elegant free-flow of sound. With each brush across the instrument’s strings more swelling sounds lifted towards the ceiling and filled the nearly 100-year old hall, gently settling in the ears of eager listeners. Except for Bird’s music the hall was so quiet that one could hear the zipper of a coat. The stage was illuminated by magnificent colors that smoothly transitioned from soft green, to blue, magenta, red, and yellow.
For a little over 90 minutes the soft spoken Bird performed his lesser known compositions, with little to no talking in between. “This is the kind of music I make when I’m out at my barn in Western Illinois” he shared. He said that he was performing the music he plays for the sake of writing and playing music, which to me was an honest acknowledgment of trust between Bird and his fans; he seemed to be sharing his musical secrets with devoted listeners.
All along Bird was tied up in his art, swaying with each pull of the bow and pluck of a string. In a nearly seamless fashion he added loops to create additional tones and melodies. With closed eyes Bird turned to his body for rhythm by drumming on his leg and thumping on his chest, only to follow it up with a long winded whistle.
Some of his repertoire was songs, while others were ideas, or sketches. In some cases Bird did not include titles or lyrics, while other selections appeared to be doodles of could be, or would be, songs. One such tune was Bird’s interpretation of a farm landscape that depicted everything except the crickets through loops and whistles entitled “Barnscape”. Unfortunately I later found out that what appeared to be a unique set-list was a direct replica of the previous and succeeding performances.
Bird kept a majority of the show classical and focused around his violin, singing at a minimum. Few tunes were performed off his albums, including: “Natural Disaster”, “Carrion Suite”, and “The Happy Birthday Song”. He also played some covers including Cass McCombs’ “Meet Me Here at Dawn”. There were a few moments where he dabbled with fiddle music, but it was not long lasting and mostly towards the end.
While the scene was spiritual (mostly because of the acoustics and Bird’s musical passion), the concert grew slightly dull and hollow after a while. Perhaps this was from sitting still amongst pews and slate walls, or because Bird was stationed on a stool, which caused delayed effects. He had to rely on his crew more than usual, signaling his right-hand-man when to trigger sonic effects such as the Janus Horn, which spun in circles spewing extra vibratos and tremolos throughout the hall.
At times it felt that Bird worked to build up the music, carefully adding layers of loops, whistling and instrumentation, only to abruptly stop without any attempt at closure. This awkwardly left the audience uncertain when to applaud. Overall the performance felt that it was more about ambience (“Gezellingheid”) and timbre than variety in repertoire.
Bird ended his set with the crowd pleaser “Scythian Empires,” the only song to generate a “whoo,” holler and applause upon starting. While introducing the final song, Bird asked if the audience would clap the song’s rhythm section during the bridge. He expressed the silliness of his request by saying: “I can relate…I know if I was out there and someone said, “Hey clap along, I’d be like, ‘I’m not your monkey’”. Naturally Bird’s charm worked and
apes members of the audience obediently clapped out the beat.
The main set was topped off with a prolonged whirl from the Janus Horn, causing a whirlwind of pitch and sound. After a brief ovation Bird returned to stage with an encore of “Oh, Sister”, a cover of Christian-era Bob Dylan followed by Charley Patton’s “Some of These Days”. Both brought out the fiddle player in Bird, ending an otherwise ambient performance with a rendered flavor.