There is perhaps no better complement to the purple skies and browning leaves of an early autumn night than the violin-centric folk pop music of Andrew Bird. His pensive, literary lyrics, spinning horns, pedal loops, and virtuoso whistling drew a crowd of shaggy-haired Bird look-alikes to the Fillmore last night, many fans already equipped with previous tour merchandise, and even more dorkily smiling through the face hole of a life-size cutout of the mock Death of Marat on his most recent album cover at the venue entrance.
That album, My Finest Work Yet, which came out last January, is the music that originally turned me onto Bird. On the recommendation of a coworker-turned-friend this summer, I fell in love with the chorus hook of “Olympians,” the poetry of “Manifest,” and the wit of lines like “history forgets the moderates” from “Sisyphus,” which kicked off last night’s performance. My relatively shallow knowledge of Bird’s long discography quickly betrayed itself in the midst of his superfans, as those around me sang along to every word of every song, ranging from 2005’s Andrew Bird & the Mysterious Production of Eggs to 2013’s I Want to See Pulaski at Night to 2016’s Are You Serious? Bird himself even described his set in two parts, as side A and side B, with the former tailored towards new fans like myself and the latter supplying the deep cuts and covers that the older fans craved.
Nonetheless, as Bird fluidly transitioned through each song, swapping violin for guitar when needed, he perfectly translated, if not amplified, the power and warmth of the recorded versions of tunes like “Roma Fade” or “Capsized.” Given the orchestral-like builds of many of his songs, particularly of the newer ones, Bird’s ability to almost exactly replicate this wall of sound on stage with only four other band members behind him was almost hard to believe. This intricate layering of so many harmonies and melodies is largely due to his years of looping violin, vocal, and whistling tracks in live settings, and the implementation of a spinning speaker at the back of the stage that resembled two large phonographs, creating a Doppler-like effect that layered volume as well.
But to chalk the strength of Bird’s performance last night up to this technology, or the stage prop cutouts of some windows and a door, or even his snazzy white suit jacket, would be to miss the magic of his music completely. No matter where his sound goes, Bird’s songs never lose their roots in the early bare-bones styles of jazz, swing, classical, and folk that he started his career with in the 90’s. His ties to this musical pedigree shone through most as he and the band gathered around a large diaphragm microphone under a bright spotlight to play more stripped-down songs like “Give It Away” and covers of Reverend Augustus Montague Toplady’s “Rock of Ages” and Juan Tizol’s “Caravan.” By never losing his grip on these origins of his music, he remains tethered in many ways to the origins of humanity itself.
This stripped-down acoustic interlude, and another during his encore in which the band played the audience-requested “Table and Chairs” around the old microphone, were the kinds that made me think of Bird’s words during a Pitchfork interview in 2007, when he talked about trying to have a backup plan for a show should the power go out. In these moments, there was a sense of a deep and cultivated ancestry to his music, the roots of which exist in some beyond that so few living humans have the capacity to understand anymore. So when we find one, like Bird, who does, we worship him.
Since becoming a Bird true believer, I’ve occasionally wondered how Bird’s music evaded my periphery for so long, and then I realized that music like his is of that increasingly rare kind that still gets passed on through word-of-mouth, in a similar fashion to the stories he spins in the songs themselves. His music provokes a desire to be involved in this sort of sobering and romantic storytelling, even tangentially, which explains why so many people sang along so loudly last night. Though his music these days tends to “let the rock roll,” Bird also has an obvious passion for even the simplest chord, an undying curiosity for music that is contagiously charming, making me want to put on a prairie dress, dust off my old Suzuki books, and join in. — SOPHIE BURKHOLDER