WHEN IT COMES to popular music, there’s a common impulse to distinguish between those artists you’d be better off catching live and those whose brilliance is most on display at home through headphones. The Grateful Dead were known as a great live act whose studio records never matched the group’s captivating concerts, and before It Still Moves, My Morning Jacket was a group better caught in the flesh than on their fussy records. Alternatively, some great studio bands are just better in the studio. Some, like Belle & Sebastian, release spectacular records but are messy live, and some, like Cat Power’s Chan Marshall, are merely a mess.
And then there’s Andrew Bird.
The Illinois-based singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer is a rare talent: an artist whose live performances are stunning high-wire acts as entrancing and singular as his studio output is enthralling in its texture and complexity.
A virtuoso on violin and guitar, Bird may be best known for his whistling prowess: he is able to emit a sound that evokes the Theremin in pitch and vibrato. But for all of his multi-tasking and warbling, Bird’s true talent lies in the ability to craft albums that are unrivaled in scope and depth, and for his commitment to live performance as an artform that is instantly mesmerizing for even a casual listener
Bird had an unconventional but auspicious beginning for a pop musician: he studied the Suzuki piano method at an early age. But if that method is notable for its formally rigid approach to music, Bird balanced it with a supple and adept ear for — in his words — “harvesting” the sounds around him.
Rather than turn to the traditional avenues for formally-trained musicians — jazz or classical — Bird first garnered attention as a member of the popular novelty touring act Squirrel Nut Zippers, a group in which Bird remains an “honorary” member. Forging ahead, Bird broke away in the latter years of the last decade to offer a distinctly polyglot approach to Indie music in solo records that he released as Andrew Bird and Bowl of Fire.
These records blended a diverse array of sounds and approaches: Bird is an artist who draws as freely from Ravel and Chopin as folk, jazz and swing touchstones. On 1999’s Oh! The Grandeur and 2001’s The Swimming Hour, Bowl of Fire, a group that included a rotating cast of Chicago’s finest musicians, offered shape-shifting pop songs that distinguished themselves mostly by the diversity of their influences.
But Bird’s unique sound solidified following The Swimming Hour, and in the time leading up to the contemplative Weather Systems. That album, initially released by the small Grimsey label, was picked up by Ani DiFranco’s Righteous Babe Records, and led to increased and deserved attention for the artist.
Bird dissolved Bowl of Fire some years back, and for a spell primarily performed solo, ingeniously looping multiple violin parts to create the sound of a full backing band. But the true brilliance of this multitasking is not the novelty of Bird’s talent, but the sheer spectacle of its application: the daring of the endeavor is dwarfed by the enthralling effect.
Live, Bird can at times channel the ethereal spirit of Jeff Buckley (as on his rendition of Son House’s “Grinnin’ in Your Face”), and at others come off as a grounded folk singer (as on frequent renditions of the stunning opus “Dark Matter”). But in terms of intellectual devotion to the craft of pop music, Bird is rivaled only by former Velvet Underground member John Cale. That multi-instrumentalist fixed his attention on re-drawing the boundaries of popular music as he pushed the envelope of lyrical and melodic obtuseness. But if Cale’s primary desire has always seemed to challenge listeners, and offer material music critics like to call “difficult,” Bird is just as devoted to creating music that is as inviting as it is approachable.
Bird sells a series of his live recordings at concerts; called Fingerlings, the albums — which frequently run almost an hour — don’t re-create his studio output but rather dramatically re-imagine his body of work as well as offer reinterpretations of other artists’ material. As a result, the final product is frequently unrecognizable from the source material, whether it is a cover or springs from Bird’s own catalogue.
Six of the nine tracks from the most recent of these, Live in Montreal, draw from Bird’s two most recent studio albums, 2007’s spectacular Armchair Apocrypha and his previous Andrew Bird and the Mysterious Production of Eggs; but the live performance, which is not solo but a trio of Bird and Martin Dosh and Jeremy Ylvisaker, is virtually nothing like the carefully crafted chamber pop of the studio work.
This live output, like the actual experience of witnessing Bird perform in the flesh, is both more immediate and more astounding than his careful textured studio work. Live, Bird soars, as he becomes one with the audience, his music, and the act of sharing art.