It’s been a beautiful autumn day in the Bay Area with warm temperatures and sunny skies, as is typical of the region in October. Some have taken the seasonal opportunity to make it a Sunday fun day type of outing here on Tuesday, 22 October, capping off last day of Libra festivities with the Andrew Bird show at the resplendent Fox Theater in uptown Oakland. The indie-rock singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist is having a big year in 2019 thanks to the strength of his new album released in March, the intriguingly titled My Finest Work Yet.
Some could have viewed such a title as a pretentious gamble, but Bird seems to be a pretty down to earth guy and went with what he’s suggested was just a working title for a theoretical goal that wound up fitting. The album is easily a strong contender for the top 10 albums of the year lists, with genre-blending songwriting, lush instrumentation, and thought-provoking lyrical themes resulting in a memorable zeitgeist soundtrack for modern times.
The album opener and lead single “Sisyphus” resonated across the airways in the spring with its cinematic vibe and spaghetti western whistling part, catching the ear of new fans drawn to the song’s vibe of existential struggle. When Bird sings, “I’d rather fail like a mortal than flail like a god, I’m a lightning rod. History forgets the moderates,” it feels something like a calling card for those drawn to political revolution against the corrupt system that brought the dystopia of 2019 into being. Bird has said the song “is about being addicted to your own suffering and the moral consequences of letting the rock roll”. But when he sings, “Did he [Sisyphus] raise both fists and say, ‘To hell with this’ and just let the rock roll?”, it also feels like it speaks for so many exasperated Americans who want to do away with the current political system of legalized bribery and create a genuine people’s democracy.
It was then pleasing to discover that the entire album rings with universal socio-political themes that express the frustration felt by so many millions in this world gone mad. But Bird isn’t raging against the machine so much as he is merely revealing himself to be an astute cultural observer and crafty songwriter.
Thus there are some fans here at the Fox seeing Bird as a headliner for the first time, along with what are many longtime fans staking out their position. Those drawn in by the new album soon find that this tour is the right place at the right time to get into Andrew Bird as he opens the show with “Sisyphus” and proceeds to deliver side A of the album in sequence. “Bloodless” is another sonic gem, with Bird delivering some exquisite violin over a bluesy groove as he draws the audience in.
“It was written between the 2016 election and Charlottesville, between those two moments. And, I was trying to figure out a way to step back and look at everything that’s going on, and look at how we’re caught in this sort of death spiral,” the Chicago-area native said earlier this year in an interview with KCRW in his current hometown of Los Angeles.
But as with most of the album’s songs, the lyrical themes reveal themselves in a subtle manner that doesn’t supersede the music. “Most of my songs try to step back and not take a position per se, but just give a different perspective on it than what we’ve been getting from our news feeds that put us in a state of alarm,” Bird added in the KCRW interview.
The set continues to build in strong fashion with the album’s third song “Olympians”. Bird plinks some nimble violin melodies in more of a ukulele style to launch the tune before the rhythm section picks up the tempo as the infectious verses lead to a big melodic chorus. When Bird sings out, “Oh, we’re gonna turn it around, we’re gonna turn it around, yeah,” one can’t help but feel some personal and societal optimism as the album’s larger theme continues to develop.
“Cracking Codes” brings things down a notch but opens space for some more whistling melodies and rich harmonies, before Bird comes back with another infectious mid-tempo gem in “Fallorun”. The opening melody somewhat recalls the main riff from Pearl Jam’s “Corduroy”, before the song develops as Bird sings of trying to conquer hills and valleys amidst heavy socio-political weather. Bird acknowledges playing side A of the new album to resounding applause before offering to play some older material.
“Truth Lies Low” from 2016’s Are You Serious is a peak highlight, as the song’s jazzy melodic bass groove generates a dance-oriented vibe that the band takes for an exquisite ride. The extended exploration over a deep groove even conjures visions for jam-rock-minded fans of classic uplifting tunes like the Grateful Dead’s “Eyes of the World”. The rhythm section keeps the groove flowing dynamically while the audience takes delight. Bird then keeps the energetic vibe going on “Roma Fade”, an upbeat number from the same album.
The band is really cooking now, with their unique blend of rock, jazz, and Americana elements. Throughout the show, Bird switches between violin and guitar and back, often playing his violin more like a guitar or ukulele. Charming guitarist/vocalist Madison Cunningham is a talented singer/songwriter in her own right, adding gorgeous harmonies and vocals throughout the evening. Rounded out by bassist Alan Hampton, keyboardist Tyler Chester and jazzy drummer Ted Poor (who all played together on My Finest Work Yet), Bird has put together one of the most dynamic quintets to hit the road in 2019.
“Ready for Side B?” Bird asks, and the answer is yes as the quintet takes on the second half of My Finest Work Yet. “Archipelago” provides a showcase for Bird to front the group on violin, while singing intriguing lines such as “A three-headed monster swallows Tokyo, Her enemies are what make her whole” and “Our enemies are what make us whole, We’re locked in a death grip, and it’s taking its toll, When our enemies are what make us whole.” That flows into “Proxy War”, and it’s almost like seeing a theatrical performance where the melodies and vocals of each song feel like they build upon each other as the tale continues.
The album’s plethora of melodic riches continues to flow on “Manifest” as the song’s infectious melodies draw in the audience, while Bird sings a lament for some of the modern age’s environmental problems in a clever song that feels both mournful and cathartic. “Don the Struggle” continues the loose narrative as Bird sings to an antagonist, “I saw you limping through the exit row, Boasting of the wars you’ve won, You know they say that what you reap you sow…” This theme seems to set up the album closer “Bellevue Bridge Club”, in which Bird sings of dragging someone out of their house to make them face the results of what they’ve done. There are few albums of recent times where the songs flow together so well both harmonically and thematically like this one does, with the conclusion bringing another round of ecstatic applause.
But Bird and his band aren’t done yet. “Give It Away” from 2012’s Break It Yourself features some tightly arranged counterpoint melodies as Bird continues to show what a high-level band he’s put together. A compelling duet with Cunningham on “Left Handed Kisses” provides an endearing moment that recalls the vibe of Johnny Cash and June Carter, with the audience loving every moment as the dynamic duo sing their hearts out.
“I feel so lucky to have Madison Cunningham here on stage,” Bird says at the end of the song, and indeed, it is a stroke of good fortune to have such a talent who has her developing music career in your band. Somewhat resembling Uma Thurman’s character in Kill Bill, Cunningham has been a multi-talented musical ninja in this show. She takes a star turn singing her torchy number “Something to Believe In” from her excellent new album Who Are You Now.
The set comes to a rousing finish on “Capsized”, an energetic tune with a tight beat and infectious groove where Bird sings of a capsized ship. Coming on the heels of the performance of My Finest Work Yet, it feels like a metaphor for where Earthship Titanic is headed if humanity can’t come together to steer clear of the looming iceberg and solve the climate crisis.
The encore includes a mesmerizing cover of the Carter Family’s “When the World’s on Fire”, another zeitgeist selection where Bird and Cunningham harmonize in transcendent fashion. The duo continue to deliver with a charming old-timey duet on John Hartford’s “Gentle on My Mind”, as the show keeps featuring one highlight after another. The evening then comes to a close with “Pulaski at Night”, a song that pays homage to Bird’s home region of Chicago with an upbeat number that puts an uplifting cap on the evening.
A great album does not necessarily always translate to a great live show, but Andrew Bird has pulled it off here with one of the best shows the Fox has seen in 2019. Fans can only hope that he can keep this great band lineup together moving forward because there’s a unique sonic quality with this group that is ripe for further exploration.