Fans and some newbies became rapt and — believe it or not — even fell silent when Andrew Bird took the stage at the Straz Center's Ferguson Hall Tue., Oct. 9. Here We Go Magic opened the show (words by Julie Garisto; photos by Daniel Veintimilla).
Bird's performance was spellbinding, offering a little more gusto than you'd expect from the cerebral, classically trained multi-instrumentalist — one who can make his violin and guitar sing and turn his mouth into a musical instrument in the form of an amazingly operatic whistle.
When Bird sang, he belted out with heart-grabbing power, endearing the crowd with animated earnestness and an old-timey troubadour stage presence.
The musician who once did a fun stint as Dr. Stringz on Noggin's Jack's Big Music Show used a sequencer to layer whistles, vocals, strums and other miscellanea, and throughout his show, words and music ebbed and flowed and intertwined in an elegant sweep of interchangeable counterpoints.
Not embodying any single persona at a given time, Bird can be a folkie, a balladeer, a bluegrass codger, a classicist, an experimentalist and all-out rocker. He can be both homespun and highbrow. You know you can never pin Bowie down? The Chicago showman is another species of music chameleon.
Stage enhancements included hanging helix-like structures that were designed to be aerodynamic and constantly in motion, and lights, shadows and changing colors reflected the mood of each tune. Gramophone-like speakers equipped by Chicago's vintage-custom Specimen revolved at the beginning and end of the show. They recalled a quaint science-fiction movie prop from the 1940s, one that might perhap signify a trip to and from another place in time. A monkey doll in front of it further added to the quirky charms.
The stage effects and crystal-clear sounds was at times breathtaking. During "Effigy," from 2009's Noble Beast, orange lighting resembled flames. "Lazy Projector" yielded blueish icicles, meant to symbolize the fractured relationship recounted in the tune.
There were a few, not many, instances when Bird took a break to address the audience. Unfortunately the people who responded to him blurted out inane nonsense that made me sink in my chair. The same cringing feeling happened at the Daily Show's first taping in Tampa during the RNC, also at Ferguson Hall, when a middle-aged hippie gyrated in the aisle a couple of rows in front of us, making Jon Stewart noticeably uncomfortable.
Tunes from Bird's newest record, Break It Yourself, dominated the setlist, and there were some from the forthcoming acoustic companion release Hands of Glory (out Oct. 30). He also included some favorites from his earlier years. Especially entertaining was "Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left" from 2005's The Mysterious Production of Eggs . Excellent covers of tunes by Handsome Family and Townes Van Zandt got enthusiastic applause.
All around, it was as close to a pitch-perfect show as you can get without going to an orchestra concert, the exquisite acoustics in Ferguson Hall making me yearn for more rock and pop-oriented concerts in the comfortably midsize space. (Attendance was 805.)
Opener Here We Go Magic, on the Secretly Canadian label, played tunes from their new CD A Different Ship with a dual-drummer attack. They seem unassuming, like just another one of those nouveau psychedelic acts at first, but the young, meditative band insinuates with whisper-y harmonies and hypnotic repetitions. Their show livened up at the end with 2010 hit "Collector" (off Pigeons) blending seamlessly into "How Do I Know" from the new record. Guitarist Jeremy Ylvisaker from Andrew Bird's band played on the doubled-up finale.
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