Better than… a Sunday evening on the couch watching Breaking Bad. SIKE NOTHING IS BETTER THAN WATCHING BREAKING BAD.
The tagline on Andrew Bird is always gonna be he's that guy who whistles. Which is a shame, because starting with 2005's Mysterious Production of Eggs and especially 2007's Armchair Apocrypha, he's created a truly impressive discography of avant-chamber pop shot through with folk Americana and jazz experimentation. With 2012's Break It Yourself charting in the top ten in the U.S. this year, he's also become big enough that he can play the 5,700-seat Greek Theatre.
Opening up was Sharon Van Etten, out of Brooklyn. Touring in support of this year's Tramp, Van Etten has been in the midst of slowly blowing up. Her soprano lilt can take on the same rough rasp and pursed vowels of Cat Power, and she plays a similar type of simple-chord folk that tends toward a dirge. But unlike Chan Marshall, Van Etten seems at ease on stage.
“Rock n' roll,” she drawled ironically. “Here's another acoustic ballad.” Coming at the end of a day stewing in the watery heat of Los Angeles, all those acoustic ballads could be a little soporific. But on songs like album standout “Serpents,” when Van Etten puts down the acoustic guitar for an electric and goes in for something wilder, it's easy to tell that she's destined to become very popular among a subsection of college girls with tendencies towards Italian movie posters, bangs, and dramatic pronouncements about coffee.
Then came Andrew Bird. Bird has a very neat trick for opening up, using looping pedals and his violin to create a one-man orchestra, and it's one he uses throughout his live show. It also gave him a chance to show off his Suzuki-honed chops, before a four-piece band came out and launched into “Hole in the Ocean Floor,” one of the best tracks from his newest record.
On stage, Bird sashays in time with the music, gestures grandly with his hands, and mugs for an unseen camera. Dude's sorta a ham, but he's also got the easy charisma to pull it off. His lyrics are absurdly literate, bouncing from classic mythology references to oblique science jokes, but strung together with the kind of solid cadence and surprising rhymes that'd make Cole Porter proud.
And then there's the whistling. When he leaned in and let out the first piercing note from pursed lips, the crowd erupted into applause, like Frampton had just broken out the talk box. On the one hand, it's easy to dismiss the whistling as a gimmick or twee affectation. On the other, it's the way Bird uses it, along with glockenspiel and plucked violin notes, as way of clearly establishing his melodies — of cutting through the sonic clutter — that seems to work uniquely well for him.
Bird and company worked their way through a set list hitting most of the high points from Break It Yourself and touching on some of his back catalog. Bird's music has the strong whiff of jazz to it, and every song was deconstructed and rebuilt on stage with fresh instrumentation and improv vocals layered back on top. Effect pedals and a whirling double-horned Specimen speaker aided in the forays into experimentalism, but Bird seemed happiest during the encore, when he and his fellow musicians gathered around one microphone and played a Townes Van Zandt cover. Even for a guy as supremely gifted as Bird, there must be something comforting about the classics.
Random Notebook Dump
Holy shit, there were a lot of people whistling while leaving the Greek Theatre. Like being in a pod of orcas.
To who ever shoots video for the screens at the Greek: all that achingly slow crossfade stuff makes everything seem like a bad episode of Austin City Limits during PBS pledge week.
During Sharon Van Etten, boyfriends leaned forward in their seats ever slightly. During Andrew Bird, girlfriends leaned forward in their seats ever so slightly. Something for everyone.
Set list below
Hole in the Ocean Floor
A Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left
Orpheo Looks Back
Give It Away
Three White Horses [new song]
Tables and Chairs
If I Needed You [Townes Van Zandt cover]
Don't Be Scared
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