Andrew Bird: Pitman Theatre, Milwaukee, 4-21-07

Fri Apr 27 2007

Andrew Bird has come a long way from his inadvertent lumping-in with the 90’s neo-swing movement (remember the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies?). As his early recordings with the Bowl Of Fire and his contributions to Squirrel Nut Zippers albums started to pigeonhole him, Bird began to break out of this cage around the turn of the millennium, and since 2003’s Weather Systems he has been continually evolving as a solo artist. While he has frequently toured alone, creating his own wall of sound through looping, Bird has been working with another multi-instrumentalist, Martin Dosh, for the past couple of years. Dosh appears on much of Bird’s new Armchair Apocrypha, and is a part of the current tour, along with bassist Jeremy Ylvisaker. The trio played to a sold out crowd at Alverno College’s Pitman Theatre to close out the school’s successful Alverno Presents performing arts series in grand style.

Opening for Bird was Apostle of Hustle, a Toronto-based quintet playing a somewhat tropical, somewhat progressive blend of folky rock. Frontman Andrew Whiteman established his persona early on as an impossible blend of pretentious and hokey while the other band members jammed studiously behind him. The band played some truly remarkable instrumental movements; bassist/guitarist Julian Brown was particularly outstanding, really clawing the strings to truly unique effects. The percussion duo of Justin McTavish and Danielito “el suerte” Patanemo was effective as well, but the band would have been better served if it had done away with singing and between-song banter altogether. Whiteman came off like a nervous college kid trying to hit on the audience, not like the established indie [Broken Social] scenester one might expect. Still, he seemed to endear himself to many in the audience, and the set certainly held everyone’s interest.

Bird came onstage and immediately began creating a cacophony of swelling violin loops, leading into “Imitosis.” Watching Bird waltz with his instrument, it becomes clear that the violin is a first-nature extension of his intuition, a fifth limb. He was soon to pick up his other stringed instrument, however, and the song developed nicely until a somewhat awkward call-and-response between the guitar and xylophone (augmented by Bird’s distinctive whistle). Bird’s affair with the guitar is still in its early stages; after so many years at second fiddle, it’s just taken a lead role over the past year or two, but in that time, Bird’s confidence with it has grown by leaps. “Spare-Ohs” found Bird grooving with some visible raunch through the six-string, eventually fading into some tender, subtle strumming, but during “Fiery Crash,” his playing was timid, almost unnecessary. The best guitar work of the night came during “Dear Dirty,” a brand new song that’s as close to guitar-bass-drums rock as anything Bird has ever played; his staccato picking through a twangy filter sounded like a fuzzed-out harpsichord, lending a skewed rockabilly feel to the song. By the end of the set, a vigorous tear through “Skin Is, My” and the dynamic “Tables & Chairs,” I was barely missing the violin.

There’s no denying Bird’s virtuosity with the bow, though. He played a short solo interlude which began with the show-stopping “Why?” This song just gets better with age, as Bird’s voice has become as rich and acrobatic as his violin playing, and he wowed the crowd with this performance, as well as “Masterfade,” crisp and intimate without accompaniment. Then the rest of the band returned. Dosh laid down some Nigel Godrich synth and Ylvisaker slowly built the atmosphere of “Plasticities.” It climaxed with a mind-numbing wall of violin and whistling, then slowly relaxed to Dosh’s electronic percussion. It was rewarding not only to see Dosh’s spastic drumming style stretch out, but also to feel the emerging symbiosis between his and Bird’s musical visions. The set reached its epic pinnacle in “Armchairs,” which opened with a captivating slew of violin layers, capped off by some futuristic, overdriven tones, eventually giving way to a rich surf-reverb strum through a spacious western shuffle; it was so sparse in its quieter moments that the emotional spikes were immensely cathartic. By the time the final encore of “Scythian Empires” had erupted in a roar of violin melodrama, the crowd, relatively quiet for much of the night, was on its feet. Bird has clearly found a pair of kindred spirits with whom to reinvent his music night after night, and he may just be forging his own genre as he goes.

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