Andrew Bird on top of his game

Alex Schaaf

I don’t use the phrases “genius” or “master of his craft” lightly. In the current world of music, there are only a few that I would say are at the top of their fields: Radiohead, Jeff Mangum and Jon Brion are among the few. But no one combines such virtuosic talent and devotion to his craft with human emotion and passion as Andrew Bird does.
Bird may be the most talented musician in the field today, as far as pure technical virtuosity. His violin playing could keep up with even the most esteemed orchestra member working today. But technical proficiency alone could not sell out two straight nights at the Chicago Civic Opera House. Bird adds such a distinctive personal touch and a brilliant pop sensibility to his music that he has slowly but surely become one of the biggest stars in the field.
Last Friday night I had the privilege of seeing Bird at the top of his game in Chicago. He released his latest album, “Noble Beast,” in January, and although it is not his finest work ever, it continues the ascending arc that he started with his first major solo album, “Andrew Bird & the Mysterious Production of Eggs.”
The show was no exception to this high standard. Bird is well known for his live shows, as he loops layer over layer of violin pizzicatos, whistles and handclaps to form a very organic orchestra of his own. Over this, he improvises melodies and arrangements, presenting songs in vastly different forms from how they appear on his albums, making it almost impossible to sing along to anything.
For this tour, he brought along a backing band that helped flesh out his songs and add vocal harmonies here and there. Bird’s now-constant companion Martin Dosh played drums, looping different beats using his own assortment of pedals. At the previous night’s show, in the same room, Bird had dropped and broken his treasured violin toward the end of the night. He assured the crowd, however, that all was well and that the violin was fixed for that night.
Bird started the night on his own, opening with a beautiful, elegant passage that brought the opera house to life, melding the song into a brief version of “Dark Matter.” He then went into my most anticipated song of the night – “Why?” from 2001’s “The Swimming Hour.” Bird’s virtuosity shone through on this song, as he rearranged the shuffling thriller into a choppy, rubato piece that brought forth his fiery vocals and lyrical bits like “Damn you for being so easy-going.”
The rest of the night was decidedly laid-back, as Bird focused on beauty and texture over intensity or high-energy tunes – he played heavily from the new album, with a few old hits like “Skin Is, My,” “Fake Palindromes,” and “Tables & Chairs.” Overall the set was very appropriate to the venue; the beautiful, ornate opera house played the perfect host to Bird’s melodies. And the violin escaped unscathed, ready for another day.