Andrew Bird, Lonely Dear
Thursday, February 26, 2009
Better than: Having a good show ruined by an obnoxious audience.
Andrew Bird's stage entrance at the Ogden Thursday night boasted all the careful ceremony and staid splendor of a religious rite. His fast establishment of a dynamic stage presence and quick offering of impressively calculated and nuanced music had much to do with the feeling. But the collective response of the sold-out audience seemed to help establish the mood even more. Considering how packed the theater was, the overall focus and concentration of the audience was more than remarkable. The two-hour set kept the teeming crowd rapt throughout, an effect rooted deeply in its sheer power, professionalism and complexity. It was an impressive feat for Bird and his small ensemble, an achievement that spoke as much to their talent as live performers as to the frenzied devotion of the fans.
Lonely, Dear laid a fitting opening groundwork for the evening, delivering a solid set marked by plodding, steady rhythms and plaintive, pensive vocals. The pseudonym of Swedish vocalist and guitarist Emil Svanängen, Lonely Dear shared similar compositional dynamics with Bird and his band. Svanängen established a quick and engaging presence onstage, winning the attention of the audience as they filtered in. He laid straightforward lyrics, careful melodies and a meditative and rich acoustic guitar style over the subtle synthesizer, flurried drums and driving bass of the backup band. The ensemble helped add a deeper dimension to Lonely, Dear's music, a quality that is difficult to find on recordings. Even during his most introspective and indulgent moments on stage, Svanängen's band was there as an anchor. It's a saving grace sometimes absent on recordings.
Though Lonely, Dear's set was relatively brief, their nine-song performance saw a steady influx of people into the theater. In a relatively short time, the floor went from sparsely filled to packed. As Lonely, Dear wrapped up the last strains of their final tune, "Violet," I had trouble moving without bumping into at least four people. I was not looking forward to the jostling, screaming and distractions that inevitably come with such a large crowd. But my fears proved groundless once Andrew Bird emerged. He appeared with all the exact movements and careful preparations of a priest administering Mass. He removed his shoes to function his delay pedals and made sure his guitar was properly slung around his shoulder before launching into his soaring set.
The densely packed audience watched all the minutiae of Bird's entrance with the silent awe of the hypnotized. As Bird launched into his soaring violin lines and whistles, as his band back his flurried finger picking on the guitar and his clear, direct voice, the audience remained just as rapt. Songs like "Masterswarm," "Opposite Day" and "Fitz and Dizzyspells" quickly had the teeming crowd entranced. Buoyed by the dizzying density and lushness of Martin Dosh's drums and an expert job of mixing, Bird's prodigious skill was given free reign.
Switching seamlessly between instruments, song structures and vocal approaches, Bird seemed to reveal a new part of his musical personality with each tune.
With its rhythmic spine spelled out with brushes and a light bass, "Natural Disaster" displayed Bird's talent for ballads, while "Not a Robot" featured Bird's lyrical skill for unique, stark imagery over a collage of Dosh's syncopation. "A Non-Animal" offered multi-instrumentalist skill from bassist Mike Louis on saxophone, while the piece "Dr. Strings" featured Bird doing impressions of different string instruments - a banjo, a ukulele, a zither - all on the confines of his violin. Bird also found several opportunities to spotlight his glockenspiel talents.
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The range and scope of the set was impressive, as was the devotion and respect of the audience. When Bird hesitated momentarily on a single word in a lyric in "Tenuousness," a fan called out the missing word without hesitation. The effect extended to every part of the theater I visited. Those in the balcony were standing absolutely still, their collective gazes fixed on the figure on the stage below. The fans at the very edge of the stage moved and swayed with the cadence of the music, but didn't scream or yell. One woman asked a group of girls to stop talking in loud voices during the show.
By the end of the show, as Bird played versions of "MX Missiles" and "Tables and Chairs" for an encore, I was starting to think that the well-behaved masses hinted at more than just devoted fans. This must have been the effect that Antonio Stradivari, Niccolò Paganini and other masters of the violin must have had on their audiences. This must be a natural result of witnessing a genius at work, a musician who can coax sweet and sensitive tones from an instrument as demanding and difficult as a violin. Such talent demands respect, even in the framework of rock and roll.
It was a profound observation, I thought, but I didn't dare share it with the five or six people who were shoved up against me on the floor. I didn't want to disturb them during the final songs of the performance.
Personal bias: This was the fourth time I'd seen Andrew Bird in concert, and his growth and development were almost palpable. From seeing him at the Lion's Lair years ago, to watching him at Mile High Music Festival last summer, to this performance, it was easy to track the burgeoning of a consummate creative and musical wonder.
Random detail: Bird omitted the more jazz and blues-oriented material from his first three albums, an exclusion that was unfortunate.
By the way: Bird gave a passing shout out to the Watercourse café, where he'd eaten breakfast the day of the show, before he played one of the final songs of the night.