Andrew Bird is a pretty amazing musician by anyone’s standards.
OK, I’m biased because I’m one of his biggest fans. But anybody who can alternate between violin, guitar and glockenspiel whilst looping, singing and whistling in perfect pitch simultaneously is a miracle of nature.
This week Bird’s remarkable high-wire act was in London at the start of his European tour.
So it was off to the Roundhouse in Chalk Farm to check out the Birdman’s latest landing in the capital.
Back in January, Bird was in town to start his European tour at the Barbican. This time he’s playing a more freewheeling set to promote his companion piece, Hands of Glory, a collection of classics and reversions of his own songs.
When the lights dimmed, Bird came out alone and kicked off proceedings with a sensational solo rendition of Why?
This old song has featured at every Bird gig for the last 12 years – and for good reason – it’s always a jaw-dropping performance.
The master of strings displays his dexterity on violin coupled with a vocal performance that builds to a crescendo of highly-strung, theatrical tension.
“I needed to let off some nervous tension with that one,” said Bird before launching into another favourite, A Nervous Tic Motion (Of The Head To The Left), this time complete with his three piece band.
This is absolutely my favourite Bird song with its changes of pace, wonderful lyrics and hummable chorus – complete with avian-class whistling.
Before we can catch our breath, Bird soars again with his whistling which is one of the most striking features of his live shows as he zips into Danse Carribe from Break It Yourself.
The warm, calapyso-like sounds and pizzicato violin breaks signal that it’s time for everyone to let down their hair and enjoy the musical party.
Just as you think you know where you’re heading with Bird, there’s always a sea change. Bird launches into a series of lo-fi, Woody Guthrie influenced songs from his Hands of Glory album.
The band gather around the microphone and strip down the music for what Bird calls “some olde-time-style music” resplendent with bluegrass harmonies and rockabilly edges.
It’s almost like being inside Mr Bird’s barn in the idyllic Illinois countryside with song thrushes singing outside in the clear night air.
A gorgeous cover of Townes Van Zandt’s If I Needed You is the highlight of this rootsy Americana sequence.
At Bird’s last London gig he played his new album Break It Yourself from end-to-end but promised that next time he’d return to play some old favourites.
The Birdman kept his end of the deal as he rocked out with classic tracks like Fiery Crash, Plasticities and Tables and Chairs. The jam-packed London audience were loving every minute…
An almost unrecognisable, reconfigured MX Missiles followed and was in complete contrast to the softer, luscious album version.
One thing you never get with Bird is the exact same version of any song. Every performance is truly unique with an emphasis on different textures and tones… and meanderings.
Everything is reworked and reconstructed – like an alchemist rearranging the elements to create something precious and undiscovered.
The whole effect is part exhausting, part hypnotic – wholly genius.
By now my feet were killing me! This was the longest set I’ve ever seen Bird play at almost two hours – but he seemed to be enjoying the occasion and the excellent acoustics in the Roundhouse.
There were a few songs thrown in from Noble Beast including Fitz and The Dizzyspells which raced along – followed by the more subdued Effigy with its melodic country lilt which always reminds of a Scottish folk dance.
After 90 minutes I was in a lull, a state of euphoria… sometimes it’s too much to take in when you’ve waited a year to see your idol!
A final mood changes followed with a further trio of songs in classic rootsy American style including an exquisite cover of the Handsome Family’s When That Helicopter Comes and Three White Horses.
A lovely version of the undulating Sovay was another highlight.
Sometimes Bird is best when he goes back to basics and keeps things simple and pure with an authentic and home-spun feeling.
Bird’s band are a great foil to his one man showmanship. Guitarist Jeremy Ylvisaker never overpowers the Birdman but adds subtle textures and nuances.
Drummer Martin Dosh uses his drums, keyboards and electronics to subtle effect whilst bassist Alan Hampton swaps between an electric bass and double bass to create some beautiful rhythms.
After picking up the pace for a series of older songs played with real energy and style, the whirling horn at the rear of the stage marks the end of Bird’s flight of fancy.
After a brief lull and massive cheers from the crowds, Mr Bird and his band returned to play an encore, topped off by a fast and furious Fake Palindromes.
You could see the furious bow shredding as Bird played with the passion and fervour of a musical zealot.
A gorgeous undulating loop signalled the end of the show. My feet were tired and sore. But my heart and soul soared…
Full marks for an excellent night and a wonderful set stuffed with old and new songs from a truly sensational musician.
Andrew Bird – Set List
- Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left
- Danse Carribe
- Fiery Crash
- Orpheo Looks Back
- Fatal Shore
- Fitz and the Dizzy Spells
- MX Missiles
- Eye on Eye
- Give It Away
- If I Needed You
- When That Helicopter Comes
- Three White Horses
- Something Biblical
- Fake Palindromes
Thanks to 05b for the Andrew Bird videos at London Roundhouse.