Friday Night: Andrew Bird at House of Blues

Andrew Bird House of Blues October 12, 2012

Once in a while, I think it's healthy for critics to step outside of their comfort zone and challenge themselves by tackling an assignment that is foreign to them, to test their powers of observation and analysis in a neutral environment. It's easy to review an artist you love, but curiosity is more than enough reason to review someone you don't know all that well. It's a lot tougher, though. You just hope you don't end up wondering what the hell is going on, or worse, find yourself bored to tears.

I'm not suggesting I used Andrew Bird as a lab rat Friday, just that it was ACL weekend and we were a little short of bodies on the home front. (Kidding, kinda.) I knew that he had played violin with Squirrel Nut Zippers ages go; in retrospect, that line is probably towards the bottom of his resume at this point. The 38-year-old Chicagoan's other credits include guest appearances with everyone from Bonnie "Prince" Billy, Ani DiFranco and Charlie Louvin to Neko Case and Kelly Hogan, as well as three albums with his own group Bowl of Fire.

More importantly, I knew that enough female friends of mine have been fans of Bird's for long enough that I figured I ought to go see for myself. So there you go.

After the show, I would describe Bird as a graduate-level folk musician, a formidable violinist, operatic tenor, enthusiastic whistler and quite likely a tormented soul. Despite the frequent pizzicato interruptions, second song "Why?" came across as more of a dramatic monologue meant to provoke an argument ("damn you for being so easygoing") than a musical composition.

Others, which did adhere closer to traditional pop-song structure, were just as infused with drama. Safe to say you probably don't want "Fiery Crash" to come up on your iPod the next time you're passing through an airport. Songs like that and "Effigy," which likewise projected the same sense of general unease in the lyrics, made me wonder if there was a single moment or person that inspired them, or if it's more of a theatrical device. It was hard to tell.

Indeed, much of the early part of the show felt more like a recital than a concert. If you know what "ostinato" is, a recurring fragement of melody, there was lots of that, accomplished I believe by some kind of sequencer or looping device. Also quite a bit of counterpoint, adding and subtracting those bits of melody, to go along with the intertwining helixes suspended from the ceiling. It was all fascinating, and also perplexing. Where was this going?

But past the halfway point, xylophone-dusted title track of Bird's most recent album Break It Yourself -- concerning a heart, of course -- it became apparent how much he and his small band just purely enjoyed each other's musical company. I took fewer notes after that and just enjoyed soaking in their interaction.

Not terribly long after, though, they came up front for an acoustic mini-set of songs from Hands of Glory, his soon-to-be released companion to Break It Yourself, including bluegrass shuffle "Railroad Bill," the bluesier "When That Helicopter Comes" and "Three White Horses," which confirmed that his songs contain a lot of darkness even when they're on the cheerful side.

But not always. Bird even allowed him to rip off a power chord or two before closing the main set with the tempestuous mini-symphony "Tables and Chairs." He had won me over even before playing one of the better covers of Townes Van Zandt's "If I Needed You" I've heard in the encore. Things may have settled down a little by then, but they never quite rested.

Personal Bias: As I mentioned, about as little as humanly possible. However, a dear friend of mine happens to be Bird's tour manager, so I saw an opening to educate myself a little and took it.

The Crowd: Possibly whiter than the Shins last Wednesday. It wouldn't take much for them to fit into HOB's Bronze Peacock Room, but at least they were paying attention.

Overheard In the Crowd: Someone actually yelled "play some Skynyrd!" At this show.

Random Notebook Dump: I enjoy using words like "ostinato" and "pizzicato," which means producing sound from a stringed instrument by plucking the strings rather than using a bow. It does not happen that often.

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