Andrew Bird Mesa Arts Center Wednesday, April 18
When I opened the doors of Mesa Arts Center last night to see indie rock whistle-master Andrew Bird, I was greeted by an ocean of flannel shirts and beards. Folks were politely waiting in line for an overpriced beer and excited to see the show. The girl at will call told me she heard a guy had come all the way from Los Angeles just to see Mr. Bird and would be driving back after the show.
Andrew Bird has a fan base -- the dedicated, serious, and loyal kind. The average listener has maybe heard one of his songs in the John C. Reilly flick The Promotion, or maybe they have heard the beautifully orchestrated song of whistles on the soundtrack of the newest Muppets movie. But for people who don't have even that limited exposure to Bird, I have no way of explaining what he represents and what his music sounds like. It sounds like Andrew Bird.
The man himself casually walked onto the dimly lit stage just after 9 p.m., and without a word, he picked up his violin. For six minutes, he played the instrument as it should be played and used his feet to loop and layer the sounds and harmonies he was creating.
He transitioned to whistling, which he does so damn well, and went back to the violin, this time playing it like a tiny glossy guitar. With each passing moment, and each addition of a sound and a note and a whistle, the audience witnessed as Bird pieced together an orchestra all by himself. At one point, I swore there was an entire band on stage, but it was just him with his corduroy blazer with the elbow patches and his hair stylistically unbrushed. When he was done and the last of the whistles and violin strums echoed through the theater, the audience gave praise as he welcomed them. "Hey, everybody pleased to meet you. I don't really play classical music, but it's all that wants to come out."
He remained on stage alone to play "Sifters," a song from his newest album, Break It Yourself. The album version of the song has a handful of instruments. Bird chose to layer his acoustic guitar and his voice to crowd the stage, and at the same time it isolated his voice enough so that the crowd could focus on the lyrics that he is so well known for. When the song ended and the applause slowed down, the three other bandmates for Bird on the tour walked on stage and took their places behind the guitars and the drums. Again, without a word, they slowly crept into "Desperation Breeds...."
The drums picked up tempo first and gained momentum in perfect timing while the guitars, violin, and xylophone (also played by Bird) followed suit. The lights transitioned from burnt orange to a deep purple and somehow it seemed to perfectly coincide and dance with the art-piece that Bird and his friends were creating on stage. This was the first song of the set where he sang harmonies that partnered his violin, mimicking sound in such a fluid way.
The lights transitioned to bright white and yellow as they began playing "Eyeoneye," also from the newest album. The song was faster and harder but was still perfect for the "sit down and watch this guy do his thing" atmosphere. It is the song on the album which coins the lyric the album was named after: You've done the impossible now/Took yourself apart/Made yourself invulnerable/No one can break your heart/So break it yourself.
The music stopped and the lights blanketed green over the stage and over the standing bass that was going to be used to set the mood for his cover of "It Aint Easy Bein' Green." It was a delight to see the cover done live, and shows the intelligence Bird has in formulating a song popularized by a children's show sound so beautiful and deep. He bantered with the audience when the applause stopped and explained that, "I wrote the back part of that song for Kermit. I really wanted to write a song about why the Muppets broke up."
Another transition took place when Bird announced to the crowd that they were going to do some unplugged stuff and use the "old-timey microphone." He stood and plucked his violin as the stand up bass and acoustic guitar triangled around the mic for "Give It Away." They played two more acoustic songs, "Effible," and "I'll Be Coming Home to Jesus," each of which were beautifully performed. He gave props to the Mesa Arts Center after the acoustic songs. "This is a really nice room by the way. Just beautiful." A compliment he repeated several times throughout the show.
As they were playing "Crown Salesman," another instrument was introduced to everyone as the double gramophone behind the band began spinning and creating a wah-wah effect that amazingly made the violin sound even better. They played a few more songs from the new album before they played "Plasticities," from the 2007 album Armchair Apocrypha. The song played and the crowd recognized it right away. Lights on the stage streamed out to the crowd like fingers pointing to people, and bringing the crowd into the symphony Bird was orchestrating.
They transitioned smoothly into "Scythian Empires," and on cue was the chimney red lighting that was just as much a part of the song as the whistling. His voice was pitch-perfect last night, and was another instrument alongside the others. "Fatal Shore," followed next and again the lyrics were poetic enough to keep everyone frozen and analyzing the poetry as much as they were the eclectic ensemble of music. His last song of the set was "Tables and Chairs," from the album The Mysterious Production of Eggs. The song was longer live than on the album, and again the violin was turned into a guitar to go along with the whistles and words.
They came back on stage for an encore just around 11 and huddled around the 'old-timey' microphone again for acoustic versions of "If I Needed You" and "I'm Goin' Home." The songs were both covers, the first from Townes Van Zandt, and the second from Charley Patton. When they finished they had played for over two hours and the crowd gave them a standing ovation for the second time. The lights of the theater came on and there was a simultaneous, awww heard throughout the crowd.
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Andrew told the crowd he had never been to Mesa before, and after complimenting for the third time how good the acoustics sounded, he told everyone, "Sure, we'll be back." Let us all hope he does make his way back to the Valley because the songs sound just as good as they do on the album, and watching him in person is like watching an incredible work of art being painted one stroke at a time. He can play the violin unlike anyone I have seen, he can whistle better than all seven dwarves, and he played his guitar as beautifully as he sang. His only hiccups of the night came when he started the rhythm of a couple of songs a little too fast, but quickly let the crowd know, "Oops, that's not right. Sorry everybody." What a charmer Setlist:
The Carrier and the Sweet (classical cover) Sifters Danse Caribe Desperation Breeds... Eyeoneye It Aint Easy Bein' Green (cover) Lazy Projector Give It Away Effible I'll Be Comin' Home to Jesus (cover) Dear Dirty Crown Salesman Orpheo Looks Back Plasticities Lusitania Scythian Empires Fatal Shore Tables and Chairs Encore If I Needed You (Townes Van Zandt cover) I'm Goin' Home (Charley Patton cover) Last Night: Andrew Bird and Laura Marling at Mesa Arts Center Personal Bias: I was a fan before the show, and now I am a bigger fan. The Crowd: The three Bs. Bald spots, beards, and black-framed glasses. Overheard in the Crowd: "This is different than Coachella!!!" (screamed on stage to Laura Marling) Random Notebook Dump: I really gotta start practicing my whistling. Random Fact: Andrew Bird's song titles are a spell-checker's worst nightmare.