“Imitosis,” a personal favorite, saw Bird strike a stunning profile in pensive blue, reflecting the backdrop in motion.
The Pageant, St. Louis
I should start by saying that I take some personal issue with Andrew Bird’s latest album. Now, the sounds of Andrew Bird come in many flavors. His past projects root his sound in the swinging Squirrel Nut Zippers and the prohibition-era sounds of Andrew Bird’s Bowl of Fire. His solo career offers everything from barn songs to glitchy electronics to acoustic ballads. Personally, I’ll take mine jazzy and complex, layered with plucky violin loops and eerie, echoing whistles. And while his violin is rarely flanked by trumpet mutes and brush beats these days, recent release Are You Serious includes plenty of variety, from the intensely lovesick “Roma Fade” to the cheery Paul Simon worldbeats on “The New St. Jude.”
Friday’s show at The Pageant—the last stop on the tour—naturally favored this most recent offering. There are plenty of gems on the album that bring the syncopation and biting melancholy I relish. But interspersed throughout the album are moments of safer, more conventional, adult contemporary singer-songwriter sounds that do no justice to his songwriting and playing talents. These elements have always been present (see “Lusitania” or “Lull,” both of which made their way into the set list), but are now elevated in his anthem of newfound maturity, “Valleys of the Young.” So while the show offered a little something for all tastes, watching the performance of “Valleys” really put a face on the essential elements for my personal Andrew Bird Greatest Hits lineup: Violin is a must, the more textured the better, plenty of instrumental stretches, fleeting moments of distortion, vocals playing more harmonic instrument than lyrical melody—all seasoned generously with his inimitable whistling.
In contrast, the live performance made apparent the fact that the climax of the album and turning point of the show, “Valleys of the Young,” hits none of the essential marks. With garden-variety guitar strumming and none of the trademark flair, your attention is directed to the alienating and inciting lyrics. In case you missed it, Bird has a healthy, stable relationship. And a child. Which he proclaims by taking judge-y and belittling bows at your strange, tree-hugging and brunching, former friends.
Unfortunately for me, the self-martyring tone effectively tainted my vision of the evening. It cast a cynical shade over the crowd, so that all appeared as a sea of fresh-scrubbed, nattily attired, new parents enjoying a respectable, married, date-night out, snuggling and holding hands and exchanging knowing glances. Granted, this was a different crowd than I am accustomed to jostling with on the floor of The Pageant, but the performance of that fateful song had the surreal feeling of listening to Paula Cole perform in the finale to a WB series. They have entered another world. They were in. They got it. I didn’t. How could I? Left behind in the “valleys of the young, I wouldn’t—couldn’t—understand them, or Bird, anymore.
But it’s not fair to Bird, whose fixation on brunch as the source of misery and tedium suggests he desperately needs to reaffirm some life decisions. Nor is it fair to members of the audience, who probably grew into their adulating lifestyles alongside him, but perhaps are less hasty to abandon their whimsy and ability to enjoy some hair-of-the-dog mornings out with friends, or even a night out at The Pageant. In fact, someone called him out on his mudslinging: “What’s my problem with brunch? Brunch makes me angry.”
So while I may reach a different conclusion on his eternal “Is it selfish or is it brave?” parenthood question (he sounds positively exhilarated at the new depths of heartbreak he has to look forward to), the sincerity and adulation of the crowd was endearing—like the dude next to me, standing behind his lady in a permanent bear hug, only lifting his chin from its resting place on her shoulder long enough to shout out song requests, We, the People, really wanted to hear “Nervous Tic Motion!” So, as much as Bird tried to convince me that I am alienated from the child-rearing masses—“Your friends will become strange to you/ Just as you will become strange to them/ You’ll live across a great divide”—maybe the knowing glances were just my imagination, and maybe we still have more in common than he would lead us to believe, like what makes a good Andrew Bird set list.
Before the fateful song, Bird and his band played several other tracks from the latest album, opening with the intense and promising “Capsized,” followed by “Tenuousness,” one of my favorites from Noble Beast, which showcases his bright and jaunty violin and melodies. There followed a stretch of songs necessarily interpreted as guitar-forward numbers, like “Puma” and “Are You Serious,” which strips them of many ingredients that grant Bird’s music its unique qualities. “Lusitania,” “Truth Lies Low,” and “Left-Handed Kisses” all desperately missed their duet partners and backing vocals; charming as they were, his efforts at getting coy with himself could not fill the void of Fiona Apple’s raspy, accusatory counterweight that really makes the song. In fact, the sound quality was so exceptional that you could hear every scratch and glide of Bird’s bow across the strings. I would have loved for Apple’s voice to have received the same treatment. (He did, however, assure us that she did send her regards.)
And while Truth Lies Low is an album standout thanks to ethereal backing vocals from Moses Sumney, the live performance made up for his absence with a stunningly complex treatment of loops upon loops of crying violin, constructed at the beginning and returned to close the song. “Three White Horses” only benefitted from the live construct of a whistle track in four-part harmony, adding two additional accent layers, and eventually slowing the loop to a deconstructed, grinding halt.
Following the fateful song, the atmosphere took a turn for the moody and sultry. “Imitosis,” a personal favorite from 2007’s Armchair Apocrypha, saw Bird strike a stunning profile in pensive blue, reflecting the backdrop in motion. Throughout the night, flat black panels outlined in Technicolor bulbs like gigantic Lite Brite cast a color-changing glow around the band members’ silhouettes, also built of shades of gray and faded black. The coarse scratching of bow on strings heightened the tension and longing in the show, paving the way for “Pulaski at Night” and “Armchairs,” a stunning treat for the evening: “I dreamed you were a cosmonaut/ of the space between our chairs/ and I was a cartographer/ of the tangles in your hair.” This is one song in which his voice is expressive and compelling enough to stand alone, taking on heart-wrenching tones of Jeff Buckley proportion and dramatic pause: “You didn’t write, you didn’t call/ it didn’t cross your mind at all/ and through the waves/ the waves of a.m. squall/ you couldn’t feel a thing at all.” It was a climactic end to the full set that left the audience in the palm of Bird’s hand, begging for more with unwavering applause.
Returning for their encore, the musicians regrouped in a trio of acoustic strings huddled around a single microphone, just in front of the drum kit, introducing yet another quality of sound to the evening. “Give It Away” benefitted from the trio of singers and dynamic energy of their forces combined. The intimate arrangement also breathed new life into a charming version of Neil Young’s “Harvest.” As a parting gift, we were treated to a tentative theme song from Bird’s fantasy children’s program—Professor Socks—before the band assumed formation for the closing number, “The New Saint Jude.”
All told, it was one of the best Andrew Bird performances I’ve seen: varied and complex, with something for everyone—except, of course, for that fateful song, which is not meant to be understood by the likes of me. Does this mean we can’t be friends? Does this mean I’m not going to understand your music anymore? Well, I’m not so easy to shake as all that. As long as the violin and whistling still have their place in the music, I’ll keep coming back for more. And I’ll amuse myself with the “problems that seem like luxuries” (#childfreeworldproblems), like trying to sympathize with your grownup problems, since my childless self has the time for that. | Courtney Dowdall