Thursday, March 19, 2009

Andrew Bird / Heartless Bastards - Live 2009.03.15 The Pageant, St. Louis, Missouri

I must admit that I am something of a neophyte when it comes to Andrew Bird, but when I heard he was coming I figured that it would be a show worth checking out. (It is strange, though, that I am more willing to spend $20+ on a concert instead of $12+ on a CD as my introductory experience… although I suppose the concert is more unique.) Anyway, I convinced one of my friends who has been a longtime fan to come along with me, and it made for a good night.

Artist: Andrew Bird
Venue: The Pageant
Location: St. Louis, Missouri
Date: 15 March 2009
Opening Act: Heartless Bastards

01. Improvisation (Solo)
02. The Water Jet Cilice (Solo)
03. Masterswarm
04. Natural Disaster
05. Effigy
06. Oh No
07. A Nervous Tic Motion of the Hand to the Left
08. Fitz and the Dizzyspells
09. Not a Robot, but a Ghost
10. Lull
11. Anonanimal
12. Imitosis
13. Souverian
14. Doctor Strings
15. Fake Palindromes

16. Improvisation (Solo)
17. Why? (Solo)
18. Tables and Chairs

Right on time at 8pm the Heartless Bastards took the stage. The band is a singer/guitarist (who also did some keyboard), a lead guitarist (who occasionally did bass), a bassist (who also did some pedal steel and acoustic guitar), and a drummer. They played nine songs in just about 45 minutes, most of which were bluesy rock numbers. Their songs were pretty heavy, but the song structures and arrangements were excessively basic. There were no alarms and no surprises whatsoever. Even the one acoustic number was just three chords accompanied by a simple picking pattern on a second guitar. The one song with pedal steel was a welcome change, but they left the instrument otherwise unused. The singer did a few loops, but they were really basic and she only made them so she could solo over them. However, this was rather unnecessary considering that the other musicians kept the music held down fine as it was. Her keyboard, too, was just used for the verses of one song. Why cart around so much stuff if you are barely even going to use it? I was pretty disappointed, especially in the last number, which was an extended jam where the musicians just played the same simple riff for several minutes. I was expecting a solo or something, but no, they just kept playing the same chord over and over. Boring.

At 9:15pm, Andrew Bird came out and immediately started plucking his violin and creating loops. This was apparently an improvisation, and even if that hadn’t been the case, he created quite a soundscape just by himself. At his disposal was his trusty plucked and bowed violin, a hollow-bodied electric guitar, a glockenspiel, a modest set of effects and looping pedals, his amazing capacity to whistle, and his regular voice.

After another loop-laden solo piece, he brought out his band, which is currently Martin Dosh on drums, Jeremy Ylvisaker on guitar, and Mike Lewis on bass. Dosh usually played slightly intricate but restrained rhythms; only on a few songs did he let himself go to rock out more (but obviously, this isn't your normal rock band). He had a whole bunch of extra equipment in the form of some sort of combination of effects processors, samplers, loop pedals, and auxiliary percussion (and maybe some sort of keyboard instrument?). I was never too sure what all he was doing, but I know it sounded great. Ylvisaker mostly did modestly complex fingerpicking riffs that really helped fill in some of the parts of the sound base that Bird wasn't doing himself. He sometimes also played with loops and other effects, and once or twice he picked up Lewis's bass when he switched to saxophone or bassoon. Lewis kept up solid basslines through the entire set and he was able to occasionally pick up other instruments and do pristine lead parts.

I won't be able to describe things in too great of detail or talk too specifically about which songs were the coolest, but I do remember some particularly interesting things. The stage had four massive gramophone-style speakers, and the two largest ones were usually lit in some stark color. Sometimes this was the same as the rest of the stage but sometimes they were strikingly different. The other two speakers were connected and hooked up to one of Bird's pedals so that he could control how fast they would spin around. His amplifier must have output to those speakers, because a microphone stood right beyond them so that when they spun fast, it created a rotary effect.

I was very impressed by the total sound output of the musicians. My first thought of the complete band (during "Masterswarm") was a very chamber pop thing, but songs like "Fitz and the Dizzyspells" got pretty rocking. "Not a Robot, but a Ghost" was introduced as a collaboration with Dosh (who originally wrote the music under the title "First Impossible"), and the song did sound a bit different than the rest. It was a pretty good jam with a cool outro; Dosh threw down some weird percussion samples, Lewis was looping his bassoon, and Ylvisaker had a little box with a long antenna that he held over his strings to create weird sounds.

"Lull" was preceded by two false starts, apparently because Dosh was controlling some of Bird's loops and he wasn't satisfied with the timing or something. As Bird said, "This is tricky stuff, you know." Ylvisaker had some sort of pen-thing or a weird slide, and between that and Bird's glockenspiel, they created a beautiful soundscape once they got going. After a false start of "Imitosis", Bird said their errors were just inexperience: this was the first show of their tour. Again, once things got going, the song had a great groove. Ylvisaker did a little guitar solo, which led into a violin solo by Bird, and later he did a solo in which he alternated between whistling, glockenspiel, and guitar. Way cool.

Many songs opened with solo instrumentals by Bird that suddenly transitioned into the "actual" songs after a minute or two; the one before "Effigy" was particularly notable due to the sudden but cool change in atmosphere. The "Doctor Strings" bit seemed to confuse some people (or at least me), but it appears to be a short humorous piece about fixing stringed instruments. It sort of segued into "Fake Palindromes", which the audience totally loved. They cheered and moved more to that song than any other by far. As it is a rocking song, I supposed this was deserved.

At 10:45, the Bird and the band left the stage, but within a minute, Bird came back out by himself for an encore. He started into a piece with a really weird syncopated rhythm, and he screwed it up twice and had to restart, but it was cool once he got it. The audience didn't seem to mind, but he said, "You're awfully patient," and apologized. That moved into "Why?", which was a quite abstract and unusual song. The band returned for one last song, and they left their loops going as they left the stage, just a minute or two after 11:00pm.

I have to admit, I was really impressed. I'd heard some of Andrew Bird's recorded material before, and even though I liked it, I never thought too much about it. Seeing him live was an experience. He is an incredibly talented and creative musician, and he truly has figured out how to capitalize on looping. He can switch instruments and alternate whistling and singing so quickly that you are left amazed that just one man can produce so much sound.

Andrew Bird: A
The Heartless Bastards: D

P.S. Thanks to Josh Potter for the setlist!


JDP said...

From my perspective, it was a great show and the best of his that I have seen. I saw him perform in a basement venue in Omaha with two other musicians and later on in a solo capacity in a major concert hall when he opened for Wilco later that same year.

In the past, he was looping so heavily and intricately that sometimes the overall soundscape would wash out. I felt like this hardly happened at all Sunday night. I think the loops were designed to perfection and he seems to have made some improvements on the mixing side of things.

It might be worth pointing out that Bird improvises and reinterprets the melody lines to his songs live and the loops never quite match up across performances. He's fleshing out a general idea, of course, but with juggling that many balls at once, it's almost impossible to replicate exactly from night to night. I always feel like he's got a couple dozen things floating around in his head, but is constrained by technical/practical matters in getting them out on stage. Then again, he certainly has a proclivity for tasteful minimalism; most of his studio recordings are quite sparse. By the way, if you end up looking for a $12 point of entry, I think I'd go with his "Mysterious Production of Eggs" from 6 or 7 years ago. It occupies a more-or-less permanent spot in my musical top 10 list.

Finally, I wanted to reiterate that Bird is REALLY good at the violin - it's not just window dressing like it is with so many of these other "indie" bands (i.e. we travel with a cellist that comes onto stage to offer canned background swells for our Top 40 radio hit, but that's it). Like Sufjan Stevens and Shara Worden, Bird is a member of a new group of songwriters / composers / arrangers that are integrating their classical upbringings with more mainstream musical sensibilities. For Stevens, it is typically brass sections; Worden uses four- and five-piece string arrangements; and Bird, obviously, just builds the whole damn thing from scratch. Across the board, I find this a rewarding tactic.

Anonymous said...

Dear Patrick,

We’re doing it again. Blooger Night 2. Friday, March 27. David Robertson, conductor; Karita Mattila (who was famously naked in Salome at the Met), soprano; Anssi Karttunen, cello (another wild Finnish musician). Music of Wagner, Bernd Alois Zimmermann, Sibelius and Kaija Saariaho (more Finns!) and the U.S. premiere of her Mirage, based on a psilocybin mushroom hallucination.

Two tickets, drink tickets, meet musicians, meet at Gastropub after. All you have to do is blog. Meet at the Met Bar around 7:15pm.

Let me know if you can make it and I’ll reserve the tickets.


Eddie Silva

Patti said...

@Josh -

Thanks for adding your more comprehensive domain knowledge. Your thoughts sound about right to me. I probably should go out and buy an album or two now; I'm sure I'd enjoy it.

Bird's violin skills seriously impressed me. I mean, he's a good guitarist, glockspielist, and singer, and an unbelievable whistler, but the violin-playing really shone. I really like it when indie/rock/alternative bands manage to be more than just that, such as by sincerely bringing together musical ideas that are frequently overlooked. I'm jealous, in fact: I totally wish I could bring a stronger classical bent into my own music.

@Eddie -

I need to check my calendar when I get home tonight, but I really hope I'm available!

Anonymous said...

Hey--that "Dr. Strings" thing is actually from his cameo on "Jack's Big Music Show". While it's geared for pre-school kids, it's actually a great show, which is funny. That whole episode had some great songs, including the complete "Dr. Strings". I don't know if you can find it online but "Jack" is played on Noggin, Nick's pre-school counterpart.

Patti said...

Woah, thanks for the heads up! I found a link to the video on YouTube:

Pretty weird, but definitely makes more sense out of his performance of the song.