Thursday, February 26, 2009

Noble Beast

This Wednesday I stood outside In the Venue for about an hour, patiently waiting with my awesome sister-in-law Kate to partake of a musical experience unlike any before. A musical experience known as Andrew Bird, a man who has changed the way I look at sound.

Right after seven we were ushered in, after being subjected to a quick frisking. Yeah... I'd rather not talk about it. But standing outside in the cold for an hour sure paid off when Kate and I scored spots right in front of the stage, complete with a handy barrier to lean on. Take that people who walked by us in line! You might be too hip for existence, but those squares near the front of the line hit pay dirt. Here's a little something to put it in perspective: we were less than then ten feet away from Andrew Bird. Is that heaven? I wouldn't be surprised.

The first highlight of the evening came with the opening band, which was blessedly the only opener. I'd heard of Loney Dear when a pseudo-friend gave some of their music to me a year or so ago. I listened and thought they were OK but nothing too special. They were just a another Death Cab rip off with whiny vocals and heavy back beats. Yeah, so I was very very wrong. Seeing a band live can completely change opinions, and Loney Dear proved their chops. The lead singer Emil Svanangen had a voice that floated above the earthy beats provided by a band with one killer percussion section. He really strutted his stuff on "Ignorant Boy, Beautiful Girl", where the audience sang a backup vocal lick while the band dropped out, leaving Svanangen to wail on the waves of sound we provided. You could tell he was having fun experimenting, and we were just thrilled to be along for the ride.

But nothing compares to Andrew Bird. Ever. I (falsely) pride myself on knowing my way around music. I think I can tell when a person is skilled or not, whether they have a firm understanding of how sound works. Bird is without a doubt the most talented musician I have ever seen. Not only is he insanely full of ability, but his imagination when it comes to music exceeds all others. It might sound like I am gushing all over the screen (and I am. Disgustingly so), but I can't even begin to tell you about how he manipulates tones to create the most unique and beautiful music I've had the pleasure to hear. The joy merely increases with lyrics that are way too smart for me but create poetical tongue twisters so thick and delicious you can swim in them.

The man himself was adorable, so tall and thin and gangly, exuding a delicately intelligent persona that matched his movements. He reminded me of that mythical liberal arts professor you have a crush on, with his long face and wide smile, hair flopping in dark wisps. But what was really impressive were his methods. As a multi-instrumentalist, Bird played violin and guitar, all while singing and whistling (something he elevates to an art form). To provide the right sound, he looped licks recorded at the beginning of each song, working pedals to produce the loops through what can only be described as gigantic gramophone horns placed onstage. He could smoothly transition from recording to immediately playing something new, backed up by what he had been doing seconds before, so seamlessly that you didn't even notice the change and wondered how one man could make such noise. The performance was something so extraordinary you really do have to see it to believe it. And I don't use that phrase lightly. It's astounding.

And the pure variety! Andrew Bird coaxes sounds from his instruments that are diverse and moving, capturing ghosts of other instruments. I was playing a song for my family, and my mom swore that she heard a bass and a banjo, when it was merely layers of violin. One of my favorite songs from the concert was "Effigy", where he starts with a mischievous plucking pattern on violin, going to more conventional playing that was rich and mysterious, looping those for a guitar pattern which he broke in the middle to play a folksy fiddle solo in the old Americana tradition.

Here's the thing: I love it when I go to concerts and feel embedded in sound. Most musicians try to do this by cranking up the volume so loud that you feel the rhythm, but lose the melody. Bird didn't need to resort to anything so cheap, instead covering you with such dense amounts of options that you get lost. The whole hour and half he played my entire being trembled, carried away by the transcendence of the music. Even Bird seemed to be swept up in the effect, as he appeared to be on a higher plane. Throughout several songs, like opener "Masterswarm", his eyes were closed as he moved his head to accentuate his work, only opening them to gaze above the crowd and into the distance, literally reaching out his hand to grasp what was presumably the sound that played beyond him. During "Plasticities" I'm pretty sure I had a moment of pure Nirvana. One of his ... gramophone things... was double headed (and accompanied by a sock monkey so cute that I will not rest until I own it) and could rotate at increasing speeds when activated. This managed to throw sound in circles around you, creating something otherworldly and exuberant.

When he closed after an encore of jazzy "Why" and upbeat "Fitz and the Dizzyspells", I didn't want it to be over. I had heard him expand songs I knew into new creations (like what he did with "Fake Palindromes" and an unrecognizable "Nomenclature"), been witness to a heady mix of jazz and blues and folk, all with a healthy dash of indie pop and improvisation. It was a concert I've been reliving in my mind every moment since it ended, and if that's not a sign of something wondrous I don't know what is. I've tried to include entertaining flippancy in this post, but I can't be light with things I love, and this music is worthy of love.

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