Last night at the Ogden Theatre, singer/violinist/Olympic-grade whistler Andrew Bird performed in front of the most attentive, respectful, rapt crowd the Chicago wunderkind could have possibly hoped for. There was such a distinctive vibe in the room, the concert felt more like a seance than a rock show. The ringleader was clearly comfortable with this, moving through old and newer songs with fluidity, including standouts "Give it Away" and "MX Missiles," and, for a short set-inside-a-set, he performed quieter material with backing musicians taking up an upright bass and acoustic guitar. They all stood around a single mike, recalling early 20th century radio shows that have been a continuous influence on Bird's work.
Following an acceptable, if not particularly provocative, set by longtime friend Kelly Hogan (whose drummer is a veteran of Bird's former band, the Bowl of Fire), Bird took the stage. And with gusto: Bird's slight, bookish physical presence is a ruse, concealing a charismatic bull that owns the stage within the first few delicate plinks of his violin.
Granted, he's been working at it for a while. Fifteen years ago, Bird was a touring sideman with MTV darlings the Squirrel Nut Zippers. Following the commercial success of the single "Hell", Bird concentrated on his gypsy jazz-meets-New Orleans blues combo, the Bowl of Fire. Things got weird around 2003. That's when he began making albums that would define the work he's now best known for: asymmetrical song structures, looped violin riffs, and lots -- lots -- of whistling.
All this was featured abundantly last night. Bird took the stage and began with "Hole in the Ocean Floor," a lesser-known track from this year's Break it Yourself. He was backed by a full band -- bass, guitar, and drummer Martin Dosh, who looped many of his own rhythms. With the various effects pedals and auxiliary percussion instruments, the quartet sounded like a goddamn orchestra.
Bird slid into more familiar territory, playing "A Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left" (from 2005's breakout opus The Mysterious Production of Eggs), and then another newer track, "Desperation Breeds." All the while, dual phonograph horns rotated like Leslie speakers behind the band, while above, skeletal art objects akin to sea horses spun, resembling props from a Tim Burton film.
During a rare instance of between-song banter last night, Bird introduced the song "Dear Dirty" by explaining its inspiration. "We think it might have been a third grader's homework assignment," he said. The lyrics came from a note found on the street. It's about being a caveman. "Dear Dirty, I'm a man strong and/And I live in a cave, using my blood to draw" goes the song.
The entire set felt like one massive crescendo after another, like giant waves smacking the audience. The largest came when Bird and company played a sped-up, heavily rocking version of a 2005 track, "Plasticities." As he sang bizarre lines about personal Waterloos, the crowd was perfectly synced with Bird's words.
A brief encore later, featuring the oft-covered hymn "Power in the Blood," and the set was over. It was not even 11 p.m. and the show was done. The bored cops who couldn't have had an easier concert to cover sauntered out the front doors, where more than twenty bicycles were soon being unlocked by the mostly liberal arts-looking crowd. Judging by the looks on the collective faces of bearded young guys and the women they love, it was a good night.
Personal Bias: This is about the tenth time I've seen Bird perform, including gigs with the Squirrel Nut Zippers and Bowl of Fire.
Random Note: This is the second show in recent memory where I've seen tote bags for sale at the merch table.
By the Way: Bird said onstage he's releasing a new record in October.
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