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Andrew Bird enchants audiences with casual genius

By Maxwell Price

Section: Arts

February 6, 2009

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“When we recorded the new album this song had to have that warm, bubbly, reserved sound,” explained the spry, dashing gent with the violin. “But now when we play it on tour we’re like, ‘Who are we kidding? This is a party.’”

Of course, on Friday evening at the Orpheum theatre I discovered that Andrew Bird’s idea of a party is probably better imagined as loosening a bowtie at a swanky cocktail reception. Despite his laid-back temperament and offhanded delivery, Bird’s skill emerged in the icy precision of his musicality.

Andrew Bird is perhaps the greatest classically trained violinist to cut his teeth in a neo-swing outfit only to emerge as a solo indie rock musician. But if the term “rock” implies any degree of raw sexual abandon or ostentatious misogyny, Bird might be better described as a pop auteur.

On Friday night he proved that, like violinist Stéphane Grappelli, he could spin webs of melody from his violin so effortlessly that audiences couldn’t help but blink in wonder. He also layered sounds from whistles to guitar chords into blankets of symphonic elegance. What his songs lacked in urgency and immediacy they made up for in blossoming grandeur.

He started off the set with a couple of instrumental soundscapes to warm up the crowd (and his fingers), revealing that process is as much a part of performance as the final product. He used loops and effects pedals to interweave scraps of melodies from his violin, guitar, and whistling. When the cheering of the audience somehow got sucked into the mix, Bird listened in bemusement. “Huh, that sounds kind of cool,” he admitted. It was such small moments that made the event feel intimate despite the theater’s size, as if we were watching a home rehearsal.

After two opening instrumentals, Bird invited his four-member band onto the stage. While I expected them to burst open his sound, they served more as polite accompanists who bolstered the edifice Bird was creating rather than reshaping it. The first part of the performance was dedicated to his new album, “Noble Beast.” As a first listen, most of that material sounded too staid and comfortable to really grab the listener.

Bird’s power to transfix his listeners comes not from the power of his warped melodies, but rather through his energetic performance. So when his new songs seemed too reminiscent of older ones or treaded on the side of the derivative they lost all traction.

Luckily, his older material revealed a particular sharpness in the live context. “Plasticities,” a standout from the last album, “Armchair Apocrypha,” benefited from a cathartic chorus that reverberated thunderously throughout the theater. “Fake Palindromes” exploded with one of Bird’s strongest hooks, a sly, elliptical riff that serves as the song’s anchor. The audience responded most strongly, however, to “Imitosis,” a single from “Armchair” that burns with a searing Latin groove and sensual tone.

Bird’s lyrics have never been his strong point (although you can’t help but smile when the epic “Tables and Chairs” reaches its climax with the triumphant line, “There will be snacks!”). His words are pointlessly intellectual, describing microscopic biological processes as well as ancient civilizations. But the syllables seem to blend nicely into the ensemble without taking into account their meaning. Perhaps that’s precisely Bird’s intention.

So many indie artists today get tagged with terms like “genre-defying” that it seems senseless to apply them at all. Yet in ignoring any restraints on genres Andrew Bird seems to have created his own. I’m not sure precisely how one would go about naming this genre, but if Friday night’s performance was any indication, it probably includes the words “loose bowtie.”

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