A violin. A xylophone. A giant, curved phonograph horn. Looks like it's time for a concert by the Squirrel Nut Zippers' prodigal son.
Andrew Bird + Martin DoshCity: New York
Venue: Bowery Ballroom
PopMatters Associate Events Editor
A violin. A xylophone. A giant, curved phonograph horn. The stage set looked just about right for a concert by Andrew Bird, the prodigal son of the down-home, ultra-retro Squirrel Nut Zippers. I wasn't sure exactly what to expect from this show, perhaps a little sown South Rufus Wainwright. I did not expect cutting edge technology. What I couldn't see from the back of the Bowery Ballroom were the pedals at the foot of the microphone or the other looping apparatus behind the drums and the keyboards. The songs on Bird's The Mysterious Production of Eggs may have a classic, bluesy sound, but he approaches that sound using a vastly different route than most performers. Before Bird came on Martin Dosh, a polite and unassuming musician who would be Bird's sole accompanist spent a few minutes performing what felt like a well-received master-class in looping. Bit by bit, he put together little analog vamps and hi-hat taps, layering one over another. His mix, once fully assembled, sounded a bit like Mice Parade -- a little loungey, a little drum 'n bass, a little aimless. The seams showed: pauses when he turned from drumkit to keyboard deck, occasional retries to match the new loop to ones already playing. It was as if he was drawing back the curtain to reveal the old man before bringing out the wizard. The wizard himself had all the fire and smoke. Andrew Bird opened with one of the eerie, unpronounceable instrumentals from Eggs. Over Dosh's storm of drums and cymbals, Bird swept his violin and whistled in perfectly pitched tones that had the eerie resonance of a theremin. The swell of music wiped away most of the memory of the how-to we had just witnessed. In an instant it became clear that technology may be useful, but in the end it's all about the song. And Andrew Bird writes great songs. Drawing almost entirely from his recent album, Bird began plucking his violin into a series small, sprightly riffs that fell lightly over each other (with the held of a sampler) before he set down the instrument and picked up a guitar, adding on fuzzed chords that some writers might call "whiskey-soaked". Then topping it off, came the voice, and the musical parts, as intricate as they might be, fell into the background as the construction turned into an actual, godforsaken song. For the most part, Bird stuck to the arrangements that everyone knew, prompting cheers at the first notes of each new number. Bird chose to focus his variations on the vocals, often altering the pace and tune of the melodies. Each arrangement required a great deal of concentration (even Bird paused to restart and make sure he got the rhythm tracks exactly right) but the effort never seemed to strain his performance or distract him. He played to the crowd, reacting to the words and music with as much emotion as anyone might hope, telling little bizarre jokes (more non sequiters than setups). And he used his violin to express feeling as dramatically as an old Looney Tunes soundtrack, dragging the bow across the strings in a faltering swoon at just the right moments during an unidentified blues number that I just wish I could get a recording of. Sometimes the revelation of technology dampens the impression of a performance (think about Ashlee Simpson on SNL). We may already know that the technology is there -- after all, when was the last time you went to an unamplified concert? - but we don't like being reminded of it. Like the split-second white dots that appear on film reels, it reminds us that what we're enjoying is a production, something unreal. And Andrew Bird's music is unreal. But not as in plastic, not as in fake, not as in Ashlee Simpson-esque. Bird's music is otherworldly.