By Chris Fear
I always feel slightly nervous when I arrive at a gig and find that it’s audience look as if they’d rather be shopping for organic celery in Waitrose than actually watching live music. Tonight at the Trinity Centre there’s a lot of over 40’s. Conversely, there’s a lot of under 40’s. In fact, it could be argued that the crowd slowly gathering for American, Indie-folk multi-instrumentalist Andrew Bird is really quite diverse. Tonight is a population demographer’s wet dream. Listen carefully to the pre-gig babble in the sprawling Trinity centre and you can detect the strains of a host of different languages; French…Italian…Bristolian- a fact testament to the diversity of Bird’s music.
Before we start, an introduction. Mr Andrew Wegman Bird (if you’ve never heard of him) hails from Chicago, Illinois and has been making Indie-folk for roughly twenty years. A classically trained musician and prolific songwriter, he’s released more albums and E.Ps than you could probably shake a violin bow at and is currently playing a handful of UK dates in support of his new album, ‘Break it Yourself’, with the Trinity Centre in Bristol being one of the very few, select venues playing host to Bird this year.
Back to the gig. Canadian acoustic-troubadour, Woodpigeon, opened the night’s entertainment with a sedated set that failed to really ignite the passions of the wednesday night crowd. If you want a good impression of Woodpigeon imagine the vocal stylings of Sufjan Stevens with a burning cigarette in his throat, combined with the fluttering guitar of Paul Simon and the melodic-sweetness of Art Garfunkel. He has melody and lyricism, and of course, talent and skill, but not enough stage presence or musical bite to get people properly listening, and the set falls slightly flat.
After Woodpigeon, Andrew Bird shuffles on stage five minutes late, looking slightly disheveled and wearing an outfit that can only be described as a cross between a wandering minstrel and an 18th century Gypsy. He shoulders his battered violin, steps into a white spotlight and unleashes a barrage of virtuosity to a completely unsuspecting audience. The room falls eerily silent. Even those customary people who go to a gig and loudly talk their way through it shut their mouths and face the front. All eyes are focused on the amazing flurry of sound that flies from his violin. Never in my experience of going to gigs have I ever seen a crowd so mesmerised by a musician; and I’ve been to a fair few.
What follows is a fluid set dominated by new tracks from his latest album, ‘Break it Yourself’, with the odd old track thrown in. The title track with it’s pounding drumbeat and soaring chorus receives the best response of the night, with the crowd succumbing to the rhythm and starting to dance. Admittedly, rather awkwardly and self-consciously, but dancing nonetheless. From an Indie crowd as well. Who would have guessed?
Effectively, Andrew Bird could be described as the king of improvisation: a technique that seems to have acquired a lot of stigma in these days of auto-tune and totalitarian verse-chorus-verse-chorus-middle eight-chorus songwriting. In some cases, perhaps rightly so: there’s nothing more annoying than watching someone spend 10 minutes crudely fingering their way through an endless guitar solo, pretending they’re channelling Hendrix and experiencing the sinking realisation that you won’t be getting any of those minutes of your life back soon. However, that’s where Andrew Bird is different. He deftly manages to sidestep appearing self-indulgent. He’s confident in his talent and displays his ability, but never improvises something that doesn’t need to be there. In short, he’s mastered the ability of quality control, and that’s a very difficult thing to do.
Andrew Bird and his band are not faultlessly perfect. They’re only human. At times you become aware of how complex the tracks actually are and of the fact that it feels like you’re concentrating as hard trying to understand Andrew Bird’s music, as he is actually trying to play it, so it’s only natural that mistakes will be made: when they happen however, they’re quickly and professionally covered up.
Whatever the combination of words or phrases you use to try and describe Andrew Bird they will always prove inadequate. He possesses something that doesn’t easily translate into words. Something intangible that you can only understand and appreciate if you actually watch him perform, live. Just when you feel that you can finally hold his music down and deconstruct what its made up of, it instantly changes and bounds off in another musical direction. Different strands of musical history sit happily together in the frenetic, organised chaos of Bird’s songs when logically they shouldn’t. He seems like a musical magpie, gathering genres together like twigs for some strange, Hipster-y bird’s nest. Sultry strands of Avant-Garde Jazz fuse with the melodic simplicity of Oldtime-Americana. Driving strains of Indie Rock mould with the intricacies of modern Classical music. Hell, even the bluesy threads of Ragtime compliment the twisting notes of Calypso that seem to haunt the tracks.
After the gig, the audience stumble outside into the rainy night and the lack of noise amongst them speaks for itself. Andrew Bird and his band have left them, and me, speechless.