Within the first few songs of Andrew Bird's sold out show last night at the Orpheum downtown, the singer/violinist/samplerist/guitarist had taken off his shoes, revealing red socks that quirkily contrasted with his casual black vintage suit. It was Bird, totally comfortable on a stage he graced last year, as well, doing what he does best: constructing songs seemingly on the fly, as he samples violin lines and counterpoints layer by layer, adding new bits every eight bars until the sound coming out of the system feels like a symphony.
A century ago, the notion of the One Man Band was very different than it is today. Back then, the one man band walked around town with a bass drum strapped to his back, cymbals on his shoulders, an accordian affixed to his torso, bells tied around his knees, and a trumpet wound around his head (right in front of the harmonicas and whistles). He'd then kick out a tremendous, clanging din — usually a John Phillip Sousa march — that was as much about the Gee Whiz factor as it was about musical expression. Bird's another kind of one man band: a multi-instrumentalist comfortable doing it all by himself — at least when need be — with the aid of technology.
Not that he needed to do it all himself; after a few songs, a three-piece band waltzed out, and them and Bird proceeded to create a vivid, dynamic body of music that drew from gypsy odes and showtunes, suggested rhythmic soul and effete Ivy League ditties, folk tunes and adult-contemporary wisdom, all bound together by the Chicagoan's deadpan wit and confident voice.
If there's a criticism of Bird's approach, it's that sometimes it's tough to really feel the music in a live setting because the singer, with all his technological gear and sample-heavy technique, seems so preoccupied with hitting buttons, knobs and foot pedals every few seconds. By doing so much of it himself — even with the band playing along — Bird at times seems like a juggler constantly adding another ball into the rotation until it's hard to concentrate on the gestalt because you're so worried that he's going to drop something. (Interestingly, I didn't have the same concern at the Juana Molina show the night prior at the Troubadour; though Molina worked in layered samples too, hers was a more pensive, relaxed vibe.)
But Bird's songs are fantastic, and memorable, and hummable, and smart, so the criticisms I have are actually small ones. Overall, he's is an American original, an artist so comfortable and confident inside his skin that there's never any question that his career, which is firmly established at this point, won't yield a few truly triumphant moments.