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Monday, April 19, 2010

Concert review: Andrew Bird at Yugong Yishan

There were faces of deep concern at the nefarious smell of a blown fuse from both stage crew and crowd when the sound blew out with a dramatic bang mid-way through Andrew Bird’s set at a packed Yugong Yishan. The Chicagoan singer-songwriter’s visit has been the buzz around town for weeks now and, judging by the squeeze, he could have easily filled a venue twice the size.

But after several minutes, the sound returned and Bird, who had reacted to the potentially concert-halting explosion with remarkable calm, soldiered on to complete his set, tired as he clearly was. In a way, the bang provided an unusual climax to a performance that otherwise lacked one: for all of Bird’s dazzling virtuosity and comfortable stage presence, he doesn’t quite possess the showman’s feel for lifting musical tension to its peak or the fine balance between instrumental exploration and pop execution. As a result, Saturday’s show was stunning without being fully satisfying, beautiful but somehow lacking closure.

What was never unclear was Bird’s gifted mastery of the violin: watching him construct his soundscapes, mixing deep, orchestral foundations with syncopated grooves and floating pizzicato, before launching into constantly astounding solo passages, was worth the price of admission alone. His guitar playing, on the other hand, is heavy-handed and raw, and while it provided his songs with a certain garage rock bite, it just left me yearning for more violin. Holding the ship together between this instrumental juxtaposition was his voice, which was much fuller than on his occasionally sleepy-sounding recordings, extending into grand Rufus Wainwright-like warbles before dropping into grittier, throatier territory during a Blues number.

“Are you guys having a good time?” he asked the crowd with an affable smile, looking casually smart in a faded green dress shirt and dark blazer. “I’m having a good time!”

Having opened with an easy-sounding half-time “Darkmatter”, in which his strummed violin sounded almost ukulele-like, the set picked up pace with “Nervous Tic” and “Fits and Dizzyspells,” both played rough and rocky. Part of the joy of a Bird live show is the faint sense of chaotic danger involved: you start to get nervous as he bounds back to pick up his violin or fling his guitar around his back to squeeze in a glockenspiel line—“Is he going to make it in time for the loop?”

The set pulled heavily from his latest album, “Noble Beast,” disappointing fans looking for earlier favorites. Still, his “Section Eight City” rendition was superb, and the set ended strongly with “Imitosis” (“brought to you by the letter ‘I’”) and a drawn-out, powerful version of “Anonimal,” whose skittering, ruminating-on-existence lyrics are imaginatively squeezed into a complex melodic flow. He closed with “Scythian Empires,” enlisting the crowd’s help in helping him keep time while he syncopated loops. Its majestic melody was entirely re-worked, which, while more fun for Bird, meant that it possessed little of the grandeur of the recorded version.

Despite endless cries for “Simple X”, it wasn’t to be, and he closed the show with an intimate cover of Dylan’s “Oh Sister.” It was a moving end to a show that the crowd was grateful to have had in the first place, sonic mishaps and all.



Andrew Bird - official site:
Written for Beijing City Weekend, originally published January 31, 2010:

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