I was exposed to Bird through a review of 2009’s “Noble Beast,” which was to that point his most accessible solo album. A violinist since age four, Bird has gained a following for his complicated compositions that also incorporate whistling and a highly underrated singing voice that is as graceful as it is earnest. He has name recognition with fans of independent music, but most display their enthusiasm for him in the form of twee; isn’t he so precious, that guy who plays violin, whistles, and brings a sock monkey onto stage with him?
Long story short, I had a desire to go but nobody that was actually willing or able to go with me. So I was going to pass on the opportunity until I received an unexpected and desperate message from a friend of mine asking if I had any interest in getting tickets. It was just after 2:00pm, and with the post-lunch desire to do anything to make the rest of the day go by as quickly as possible, I called her, got online, and bought tickets. I managed to get two seats on the floor. I was shocked that they were available. When I picked up the tickets later that evening at the will call window, the guy manning the window lit up and informed me that I managed to snatch them up just moments after they had become available. I don’t know what the circumstances were. I was just glad to have them.
Before the show, the friend and I had dinner at Holmes and Watson’s on Broadway.
She had moved to Troy from the Mid-West a little over a year and while growing to love the city, had never been to the Troy Music Hall. I told her about my own memories of the Hall and what little I knew of its history. When first constructed at the end of the 19th Century, the Hall was an auditory disaster. Everything sounded awful, which was an unforgivable sin in an era of chamber music. A large organ was installed that covered the entire wall behind the stage and not only fixed the problem, but resulted – accidentally – in creating an acoustic marvel renowned the world over.
It had been about two and a half months since we had last seen each other in person and a bit longer since we’d had anything resembling a meaningful conversation. We talked about the chaos of our lives and, of late, our shared propensity for isolation. Hers was due to a change in profession and pursuit of a goal she set for herself to launch her own marketing company. Mine is more personal and far-reaching. I’ve been unwilling of late to make any connections on a meaningful level. At the age of 29, I have found myself with a dwindling number of friends who don’t have marriages, children, and other adult obligations preventing them from being there in the way they once were. Feelings of inadequacy are sandwiched with pre-existing despair and anxiety, feeding into a vicious cycle of isolation. Most nights are spent going out alone or staying in alone. The latter is not often, but occasionally, preferable. There are times when nothing makes me feel lonelier than other people.
We left understanding each other and where we’ve been, even if our individual issues and situations in life were unresolved. Can’t expect forty minutes to fix that, but it always helps to at least know that you’re not the only one.
The opening act was two or three songs into his set when we finally took our seats. Percussionist and electronic musician Dosh, who frequently accompanies Bird on tour and contributed to songs on his last two albums, strikes an unassuming presence. He wore a pale blue shirt, bore a naturally pale complexion, and had light brown hair. He was also, like so many others in his genre, remarkably thin. It’s as if electronic artists don’t have the time or inclination towards sustenance because it would get in the way of work. His performance space took up a small area of the Music Hall’s wide stage, creating a tight cubicle of soundboards, synthesized keyboard, and a drum set. Trapped inside the construct, sporting headphones and nodding to the beat, it was as if he was blissfully unaware of the presence of an audience. Thankfully, it didn’t come off as being aloof. It was more like were given a glimpse of him at his most isolated, focused, and content.
His compositions are not unlike British artist Jon Hopkins, who himself recently performed at EMPAC. Each song was dense and ambient, broken my moments of quiet reflection. Much of his work, like the headliner, is reliant on looped instrumentals. While constructing his songs he’d occasionally break out in something resembling a fit of tourettes, for example a sudden shaking of a tambourine or beating of drum cymbals. At the moment, it jars the listener and seems out of place, until a twist of a knob and pressing of a button creates a new backing track that melds perfectly into the sonic sculpture he’s melding in front of us.
His performance provided an interesting juxtaposition. Bookings for the Hall are largely pedestrian and unimaginative: chamber orchestras and masters of acoustic guitars who are respected but lack contemporary relevance and play to a much older crowd. But sound and music is sound and music, regardless of its method of delivery. The soundboards and tiny LED lights may have looked alien in front of and below those massive golden pipes, but the latter only enhanced and improved upon the former, the culmination of over a hundred years of evolution rooted in traditional sensibilities and architectural accidents. Dosh completed his set and very quickly waved to the crowd, then sheepishly took his leave as the lights came up for intermission.
The headliner, Andrew Bird, took the stage to thunderous applause that reverberated throughout the Hall. He walked with a purpose, first removing his scarf and carefully draping it over a set piece before taking his spot on the stage. He looked like an incarnation of The Doctor from the UK serial “Doctor Who” that had been trained in the Suzuki method.
Bird performed as a one-man orchestra. He plays his violin alternately as a percussion instrument, mandolin, and in its proper form, using loops to give his songs more depth than anything you’ll hear from a five or six piece outfit. In addition to the melding of traditional instrumentation with new technology, he also crosses genres. His second song, for example, was a fascinating combination of Mediterranean folk and ragtime jazz.
He also played “Passive,” a song about the inherent frustration in arguing with someone who doesn’t care. It’s told from the point of view of the person making the argument, but afterwards Bird revealed that he was actually the target of the hostility. He based the song on his relationships with other people, and in particular a college roommate who once got very angry at him for his passive attitude and lack of reciprocation of the roommate’s attempts at friendship.
“Sometimes,” he told the audience, “doing nothing is the worst thing.”
Halfway through the set, Bird introduced a new song that was originally commissioned for the Muppet Movie. He poured everything into those songs, he told the crowd, but the executives only took the one that was composed entirely of whistling. I ached for him. That fetishizing is an all too familiar theme for Bird, who is sometimes treated as if the whistling and other forms of expression are mere gimmicks. This becomes apparent later in the evening when during an interlude, a man from the crowd yells out “will there be snacks?!” It’s a reference to an inside joke created by those aforementioned fans on the internet (there’s even a Facebook page you can like called “When Andrew Bird says there will be snacks”). Bird held in an exasperated sigh, paused, and relented.
“…there might be,” he announced to a combination of applause from some and utterances of confusion from others.
The abandoned Muppet song, “Lazy Projector,” is heart-wrenching and one of Bird’s best. The executives that passed on it weren’t just inconsiderate of his time. They were completely mad. He followed the song with a cover of “It’s Not Easy Being Green” that emphasized the poetic quality of the lyrics and literally brought tears to my eyes.
Bird ended his set with an energetic riff that would make Springsteen shrink with shame and envy. He came back out for his mandatory encore and performed three covers on guitar: a rural bluegrass piece I didn’t recognize but sounded fabulous, a cover of the Handsome Brothers’ “So Much Wine,” and an old Delta blues tune (Charley Patton’s “I’m Going Home”). He left to his second standing ovation of the evening.
Me and my friend sat breathless for a moment.
“I don’t usually do this,” she said, “but I need to get my picture taken with him.”
I smiled, but winced a bit. Thinking of our earlier dinner conversation, I had put myself in Bird’s position and the last thing I would want to do is deal with the throngs of hipster humanity desperate for his approval. I didn’t say anything, but she read my hesitation.
“I know.” She said. “But that sort of comes with the rock star thing.”
She was right, of course.
We went out to the lobby. The merchandise table was swarmed, manned by Dosh and a crew member, but no sign of Bird himself. Despite my apprehensions towards inconveniencing and putting out the famous with my polite and brief praise, I waited with her until the end. She was eager to meet him, and who was I to deny her that? Also, where the Hell else did I have to be?
He didn’t come out and it became apparent he wasn’t going to, so we took our leave and walked downstairs. We exited the music hall and a short, black-haired kid with facial hair that screamed for acceptance sang with friends circling around him and bopping to an imagined beat. A young girl shoved a flyer in my face and I said, despite my best efforts to the contrary, “oh please, no.” My friend laughed, took the flyer and showed it to me. It was for a show they were going to perform that weekend at a coffee house in Albany. As I expressed some regret at my rude dismissal, I heard the singer behind me transition to the most cringe-inducing, embarrassing rap performance I’d ever heard in person. I burst into laughter as we continued walking towards her car.
We were almost at the intersection of Third and Fulton when she reconsidered. “Maybe we can still catch him.”
“Probably,” I said. Again, I had nothing better to do and her eagerness to meet the man overrode any hesitancy I had.
We went back up to the lobby, where no fans were left and the crew was packing up. I faked, convincingly, interest in buying an LP and fretted not knowing which one I didn’t have (part of the ruse). When those options were exhausted, we waited out by the side entrance. We stood there about fifteen or twenty minutes, waiting with but standing far away from a group of younger enthusiasts. We discussed more of our lives of late, intermittently discussing if and when we would take our leave.
We finally did and I went home, alone. I logged into Facebook and, as is required in 2011, let everybody know the important news that I attended a concert I knew I would enjoy and did, in fact, enjoy it. I dusted off “Noble Beast” (metaphorically since it’s all on iPods and Macbooks now), the album that introduced me to Bird, and listened to it for the first time in over a year. I fell asleep to the instrumental bonus disc that accompanied the deluxe edition of the LP, “Useless Creatures.”
When I spoke with my friend the next day, she told me that Bird had, in fact, gone out the front door and directly across the street to Bacchus after the show and spent the remainder of the evening mingling with fans. Like so many other things, we would have accomplished our goals and not missed meeting someone if only we hadn’t decided to think too hard on it and taken an ill-advised trip around the corner.
- Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye…
- Listen to me LIVE as guest co-host of Alternative to Sleeping tonight at 10pm!
- Realtors: “WAAAAAAAAAHHHHHH” George Hearst III: “NONONOO SSSSHHH IT’S OKAY, it’s okay…here. Here’s a pacifier.” Kristi: “#oops.”
- Open Mic web series premiere tonight @ Lark Tavern
- Trust Me, You’re Going to Want to See This