Listen to Andrew Bird on Rhapsody

Words by: Cal Roach

Andrew Bird :: 04.21.07 :: Pitman Theatre :: Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Andrew Bird by Kim Rottmayer
Andrew Bird has come a long way from his inadvertent lumping-in with the ’90s neo-swing movement (remember the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies?). As his early recordings with the Bowl Of Fire and the Squirrel Nut Zippers started to pigeonhole him, Bird broke out of this cage around the turn of the millennium. Since 2003’s Weather Systems he’s continually evolved as a solo artist, and with rave reviews of his shows and albums, Bird appears to have finally come into his own. While he frequently tours alone, creating a wall of sound through looping, Bird has been working with a fellow multi-instrumentalist, Martin Dosh, for the past couple of years. Dosh appears on much of Bird’s new album, Armchair Apocrypha (Fat Possum Records), and is a part of the current tour band 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.

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

Andrew Bird by Alex Myers
Bird began with a cacophony of swelling violin loops that lead into “Imitosis.” Watching Bird waltz with his instrument, it becomes clear that the violin is an intuitive first-nature extension, a fifth limb. The song developed nicely until a somewhat awkward call-and-response between the guitar and xylophone, augmented by Bird’s distinctive whistling. Bird’s affair with the guitar is still in its early stages. After many years as his “second fiddle” it’s taken a lead role over the past couple years. “Spare-Ohs” found Bird grooving with visible six-string raunch, eventually fading into tender, subtle strumming. But, during “Fiery Crash” his playing was timid and 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, which lent the song a skewed rockabilly feel. By the end of the set, which included a vigorous tear through “Skin Is, My” and the dynamic “Tables & Chairs,” I was barely missing the violin.

Andrew Bird by Alex Myers
Still, there’s no denying Bird’s virtuosity with the bow. He played a short solo interlude that 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. He wowed the crowd with this performance, as well as a crisp, intimate unaccompanied “Masterfade.”

When the rest of the band returned, Dosh laid down some Nigel Godrich synth, and Ylvisaker slowly built the atmosphere of “Plasticities,” which climaxed with a mind-numbing wall of violin and whistling that relaxed into Dosh’s electronic percussion. It was rewarding to see Dosh’s spastic drumming stretch out a bit, a sign of the emerging symbiosis of he and Bird’s musical visions. The set reached its pinnacle with the epic “Armchairs,” which opened with a captivating slew of violin layers, capped off by some futuristic, overdriven tones that passed through a spacious western shuffle on the way to a rich surf-reverb strum. The quieter moments were so sparse, creating immensely cathartic emotional spikes.

When the final encore of “Scythian Empires” erupted in a roar of violin melodrama, the crowd, relatively quiet for much of the night, was on its feet. Bird has found a pair of kindred spirits he can reinvent his music with night after night. And, he may just be forging his own genre as he goes.

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