People have a million reasons not to live in New York: the rent is too high, the streets are too dirty, and you have to lug groceries and baby carriages up and down the subway steps. But those of us who call this insane metropolis our home, whose endurance and patience are tested each and every time we walk out our front door, are rewarded with a wealth of culture. No matter who’s coming through town—from Madonna to the Yankees—everything is accessible. Except tonight; there doesn’t seem to be a single person in the greater New York area willing to part with tickets to see a violin player from the Midwest. Such is the strange success and appeal of Mr. Andrew Bird.
During shows at the Bowery, the majority of the crowd usually mills around at the downstairs bar, chatting with friends and grabbing drinks while the opening bands sweat in a half-full room. But tonight, most in the audience are already upstairs jockeying for prime positioning, feverishly attempting to get as close as possible to the enigmatic headliner.
The anticipation for Bird’s performance of new material from the upcoming Armchair Apocrypha is somewhat surprising. Though always treasured in the small circles who knew his work, Bird has spent most of his career outside the spotlight. Of course, his fame took flight when Righteous Babe released 2005’s gorgeous The Mysterious Production of Eggs, and, before long, word spread of unbelievable performances. Nobody has ever seen the same Andrew Bird show twice, because each is notable for its spontaneous recreation of songs—not to mention the singer’s penchant for pitch-perfect whistling.
Bird has always dipped his art in way too many colors to categorize, and tonight he goes to incredible lengths to avoid being pigeonholed. Dressed in a brown tweed sports coat and matching tie, the singer takes the stage alongside electronics virtuoso and percussion stud Martin Dosh and bassist Jeremy Ylvisake. His wily, manic hair in a mess, Bird resembles an eclectic university professor (as it turns out, that’s exactly what he does during the day). A battalion of young women up front can’t control their excitement. Bird is part-hopeless romantic, part-passive world observer—a prom king endorsed by drama clubs and marching bands all across America.
Bird quietly breaks into the intro of “A Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left.” It’s a fan favorite and perfect introduction to the Bird-watching novice, but he can’t seem to set his pedal tap properly. He starts over several times, attempting to properly loop the violin line that will form the foundation of the song. He mutters, “It doesn’t sound right”—a complaint usually reserved for the cavernous New York venue Webster Hall and not the more reliable Bowery.
His fans encourage him to soldier on, shouting validations of love and admiration. Bird ignores them until a woman screams, “Take off your shoes!” He takes a look down and smiles before kicking off one of his new shoes. Once he has a more organic connection with his equipment, the problem is quickly resolved, and the crowd begins to cheer and tease him about his socks. Finally, his hypnotic voice drops over the crowd: heads bop, feet tap, and everyone wears a smile. Throughout the rest of the song, his sampled whistle haunts the room, providing an eerie echo to the violin as he whispers bittersweet nothings.
Bird pulls some songs from earlier records and a couple more from Mysterious Production, but the majority of the evening’s material comes from the new album. And, it sounds amazing. Bird has grown up; with the addition of Dosh and Ylvisake, the songs are more full bodied than anything he’s done before. The added instrumentation isn’t distracting or overly complex—Bird still utilizes his sample-based loops, and his voice and incongruent lyrics continue to remain the centerpiece. “Heretics” sees Bird making a woe-is-me list of sighing reflections as a looped violin teeter-totters through the song like a current. “Simple X,” a Dosh original, features a finger-picked intro and a ghostly whistle tag teamed with a rollicking drum machine-like gallop.
The only complaint heard as the room clears is that he didn’t play long enough. Nobody seems disappointed with the handful of familiar songs—instead, most begin sharing their excitement about the new album. After the show, Bird makes his rounds downstairs, appearing humbled and touched by each fan’s response. Tonight a violin player from Chicago is the toast of New York, anointed by fans who predicted his success long ago. Be prepared—2007 marks the year we will rediscover our love affair with whistling while the rest of the world discovers Professor Andrew Bird.