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Andrew Bird at the Fillmore – 2.19.09

By:  | published on February 24, 2009

Andrew Bird: Photo by Paige K. ParsonsAndrew Bird is a classically trained violinist and a deft multi-instrumentalist. His lyrics are deeply literate, almost professorial at times. The Chicago-based singer-songwriter has spoken in the past about the painstaking detail with which he records his albums, having twice scrapped his second solo release, 2005′s The Mysterious Production of Eggs, in its entirety.

Who knew he was also a mad scientist? In a 90-minute set at the Fillmore in San Francisco, the 35-year-old Bird showed that a combination of dexterity and a quest for recorded perfection has yielded a comfort level on stage that propels him to turn much of his music on its ear, jostling tempos, shifting arrangements, and generally operating like a deeply committed jazz improviser.

This show was the first of two sold-out nights at the Fillmore, as Bird has ridden a surge in popularity since last month’s release of his newest album, Noble Beast. But Bird’s rise has been no overnight sensation: Since 1995, he has released seven albums on various labels, as well as several EPs, live recordings, and more than 50 guest appearances for the likes of Squirrel Nut Zippers, Neko Case, and My Morning Jacket.

Taking the stage with three backing musicians, Bird looked every bit the wise jazzman in a natty black suit that that highlighted his skinny build and angular features. The stage was adorned with oversized gramophone speakers, vintage amps, a glockenspiel, and drums, with loop and effects pedals all over the floor in front of Bird. He would work those pedals throughout the night, looping a variety of musical progressions and seemingly doubling the number of musicians onstage. More than anything, it was Bird’s whistling—his pursed-lip wizardry makes most whistling sound like mere catcalls—that got the loop treatment. The whistle is no gimmick—it’s central to Bird’s songwriting process as the primary building block of his melodies.

The 16-song set spanned Bird’s career, but focused heavily on the widely acclaimed Noble Beast. The music was not easily categorized—gloomier and decidedly more complex than most folk, more bucolic than most rock. Despite solid support from his backing trio, it was Bird’s high-wire act that shone through. On the stirring “Effigy,” Bird swung his guitar around his back while he played violin, looped some licks, and swung it back. The encore began with Bird solo, performing the song “Why,” a track he originally recorded with his old band, Bowl of Fire, in 2001. As Bird looped a series of violin parts, building a virtual orchestra with his hands and feet, his manic yet precise exploits offered more than mere music: This was musical theater served up by a maestro.

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