Live Review: Andrew Bird at The Greek Theatre, July 10, 2009

Last Friday, as the setting sun ceased its summer sizzle, the skies above Los Angeles gave way to perfect seams and pearls of clouds in morse code configurations, as if to telegraph to the city: “the weekend is here, and the air is just right for drinking.”*

On nights like that, there’s really only one thing to do in Los Angeles (if you’re thinking “accost hookers in Bell Gardens,” you’re wrong, but just slightly).  Indeed, when the weather conspires just so, as it did on the 10th, L.A. summer nights become tailor-made for one of the city’s finest luxuries – outdoor concerts.

Saw VI: Andrew Bird scorches with his violin at the Greek (photo by author).

Saw VI: Andrew Bird scorches with his violin at the Greek (photo by author).

Like the going to the beach or rolling tourists at Hollywood & Highland, seeing a show at the Hollywood Bowl, the Ford or the Greek Theatre is a quintessential L.A. experience that makes one wonder what the other 364 days of the year are for.  It’s on these occasions — to vaguely recall and misinterpret Shakespeare – that the sun gets jealous of the moon, because the moon gets to rock out and stuff.

Or something.

As luck had it, singer/songwriter/violinist/guitarist/whistler Andrew Bird was in residence on stage at the Greek that very night, gracing the moon and a few thousand fans with creations old and new, the latter specifically being from his latest (and possibly greatest) record, Noble Beast.

Since arriving in the mid-90s, the classically trained Bird has gradually eschewed the old-timey jauntiness of early releases such as Thrills and Oh! The Grandeur in favor of fare that’s simultaneously more contemporary and unique in voice.  Where at one time it seemed he aspired to do nothing more than sit at the same bandstand as Stephane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt (and was working with the likes of the Squirrel Nut Zippers as an appropriately self-limiting result), Bird has since come to terms with his music schooling and let his emotional personae take the driver’s seat in dictating his output.  The results have generally been more subdued, less pointed and more intriguing overall.

More to the point, imagination has seeped into Bird’s work.  Though talent in and of itself can be impressive to behold, talent coupled with imagination becomes something else entirely (just ask Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel.  If he weren’t dead, that is).  For Bird, it’s meant expanding his artistry to rely less on violin and develop his songwriting to include more instrumentation, looping, and some left-of-center hooks.

Which brings us to last Friday’s show.  Bird was a whirlwind of activity on stage, handily trading his violin (whether plucked, strummed or bowed) for guitar, whistling and xylophone.  He conjured an image of a Dr. Seussian one-man band at work, with limbs and instruments everywhere at once.  In fact, if Bird pulled out a homemade instrument called a blartamafoogh, it’s doubtful anyone would have batted a lash.

The stage was flanked on either end by a giant, luminous gramophone horn, thematically linked to a pair of smaller horns center stage, which were conjoined in Seussian Siamese twin fashion to create a rotating speaker apparatus, which people smarter than me have said was similar to a “Leslie speaker.”  Whatever the case, Bird triggered it at will to manifest an ethereal spirit in his delivery from time to time.

Early in the set, during Fingerlings’ “Sweetbreads” (which features the Seussly styled hook “sweetbreads/I could taste what you were thinking/sweetbreads/that’s the taste of neurons blinking”), it became apparent that all was not right on stage, as technical problems disabled Bird’s looping gear and second vocal mic.  He cracked a few jokes, then simply adapted and brought off his performance as if nothing were amiss.  In fact, save for the roadie scurrying in from the wings, had Bird not mentioned anything, or if his drummer had not stalled mid-song later in the set, it’s doubtful anyone in the audience would have noticed there were elements missing from the presentation.  That’s probably a side benefit of being a musical prodigy – you know, the ability to make transparent the fact you suddenly can’t provide the very show you prepared and rehearsed.

Set stand-outs included “Opposite Day,” from the Seussly titled The Mysterious Production Of Eggs, as well as “Oh No” and the Seussical-sounding “Anonimal” from Noble Beast.  “Oh No” in particular made hay of Bird’s astonishing whistling prowess — which, if you’ve read our review of Trepanning Trio’s dual album release last year, you know we know from whistling.  Put it this way: if Andrew Bird’s whistling went head-to-head with the whistling from The Scorpions’ “Wind of Change,” it would be like V-E Day all over again.  If you bet your house on the whistling from Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ On The) Dock Of The Bay” against Andrew Bird, you’d be sad, because not only would you wind up homeless, but Bird would donate your house to charity and you’d be out the tax write-off as well.  “Whistle While You Work?”  The Seven Dwarves aren’t fit to walk behind Bird’s whistle with a shovel.

But the highlight of the show by far was “Lull” from Weather Systems, an album title auspiciously befitting the evening.  During the song, which at times felt as if it were delicately balancing on the head of a pin, one of the giant moths which have been plaguing the L.A. this season (the housing crisis must be affecting them, too) made an appearance, diving in and out of the red and blue stage lights for several minutes as Bird delivered below.  It was an impromptu but no less mesmerizing ballet, the net effect of which was not unlike what the plastic bag scene in American Beauty attempted to portray, albeit minus the context of Thora Birch’s and Mena Suvari’s quad-titted attack.

One moth, true moth, red moth, blue moth – it was a defining moment to carry forth into the pristine evening after the show, and no doubt many of the audience did just that.

* The clouds in question clearly borrowed this line from the unjustly maligned 90s cinema masterpiece Men At Work staring Martin Sheen’s progeny, Emilio Estevez and Charlie Sheen, in their only big-screen appearance together.

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