Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Andrew Bird / Jesse Woods - Live 2014.06.16 Paramount Theatre, Austin, Texas

I happened upon the news of an Andrew Bird show in my new hometown quite by accident. Since he hadn't yet announced what is now his latest album, I wasn't sure what to expect, but I figured it was well worth a shot.

Artist: Andrew Bird
Venue: Paramount Theatre
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 16 June 2014
Opening Act: Jesse Woods

01. Ethio Invention No. 1 [solo]
02. Hole in the Ocean Floor [solo]
03. Plasticities [solo]
04. Dyin' Bedmaker [Traditional cover]
05. Tin Foiled [The Handsome Family cover]
06. Dear Old Greenland [originally performed with Bowl of Fire]
07. Effigy
08. Frogs Singing [The Handsome Family cover]
09. Give It Away [one mic]
10. When That Helicopter Comes [one mic; The Handsome Family cover]
11. Something Biblical [one mic]
12. Near Death Experience Experience
13. Three White Horses
14. Pulaski at Night
15. Danse Caribe
16. Drunk by Noon [The Handsome Family cover]
17. Tables and Chairs

18. MX Missiles [one mic]
19. The Giant of Illinois [one mic; The Handsome Family cover]
20. If I Needed You [one mic; Townes Van Zandt cover]
21. Don't Be Scared [The Handsome Family cover]

Some background may be necessary here, so pardon my diversion from the show. Astute readers may recall that I have seen Andrew Bird twice before: once as a total neophyte in 2009 for his Noble Beast tour and again as a casual fan in nullBreak It Yourself tour. Just after the latter tour, he surprise-released a second album in 2012, Hands of Glory. After years of pursuing violin- and loop-heavy indie folk/rock/pop, this album showed a country bent with a decidedly older-school approach. While the violin and looping pedals were still present, the violin was far more folk than classical, and the looping was secondary to more traditionally-arranged country tunes, including several covers. It was a weird album, but it's grown on me and I do like it.

But after that album, Bird took a low profile. At the end of 2013, a stray EP appeared under the name I Want to See Pulaski at Night with hardly any fanfare. This EP was also an odd release, featuring six instrumentals consisting mostly of looped violin along with a semi-eponymous track ("Pulaski at Night") featuring vocals. Again, I liked it, but it was hard to figure out what Bird was trying to express with it. Subsequently, my regular correspondent J. Potter theorized that Bird was at a crossroads and in a unique position to shift his career into a new direction. He had already done once before, in transitioning from jazz/blues/folk with his earlier group Bowl of Fire to the indie rock/pop of his solo career. The fact that both of the latest releases were disparate, incongruous affairs led us both to think that he was clearing out his vaults of old ideas and preparing for something new and adventurous.

But then he announced a new album, Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of..., to be released just about a week before this show. The catch is that the album consists entirely of covers of songs by the Handsome Family, a clear longtime favorite of Bird's, considering that he's been covering them since at least 2003. The album features a new backing lineup, eschewing most of his collaborators from his previous few albums and tours in favor of a very old-school country/folk-oriented band dubbed The Hands of Glory. The whole album was recorded live in three days on one mic with no studio manipulation whatsoever. While the novelty is intriguing, I don't actually find the music very interesting.

So when Jesse Woods came out with his band and proceeded to play a half-hour of country/swing-leaning rock, I wasn't surprised at all. It was clear what direction Bird was looking in, and for once he found an opener that was on the same path. (I wasn't very fond of the openers the last two times I saw Bird.) Woods' songs were simple, but delightfully arranged. I loved that the lead guitarist wasn't showy at all but still managed to play great melodies, and I thought the organ tones were perfect. Woods certainly got an above-average reception for an opener, but it probably helped that he is a local Austinite.

As seems to be the tradition, Andrew Bird came on stage unaccompanied and performed a few songs built up with his looping pedals. The first track was a stunning medley of various themes and improvisations, perhaps most closely related to "Ethio Invention No. 1" from the recent Pulaski EP. He also offered an alternate take on "Plasticities", which I thought was good but admittedly frustrating. He played it as if he refused to allow any of the dominant and prominent hooks shine through, as if the listener was expected to fill in the holes mentally.

The Hands of Glory then came out and the band played a new song, "Dyin' Bedmaker", which is actually an old, traditional gospel tune usually known as "Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed" or "In My Time of Dying". (Yes, this is (loosely) the same song recorded by Blind Willie Johnson, Bob Dylan, and Led Zeppelin.) From there, the setlist varied widely among back-catalog favorites, Handsome Family covers from the new album, unpredictable selections from Hands of Glory, and a few surprises.

The covers had some charm, but they weren't what I wanted to hear. The back-catalog tracks were good, but felt a little by-the-numbers, even if the performances were great. The appearance of several tracks from Break It Yourself was quite welcome even if not really otherwise notable, as they still held up quite well in live performance. But the real highlights were a few cleverly rearranged older tunes and a few newer songs that transcend the genre lines.

To be specific, the older surprises were "Dear Old Greenland", a repurposed song from the Bowl of Fire days, and a rearrangement of "MX Missiles". Both were rearranged to suit the current style, and managed to benefit from it more than the covers did. The newer songs that caught my attention were "Three White Horses", the haunting, semi-fatalistic opener of Hands of Glory, and "Pulaski at Night" from the similarly-named EP. The latter was the perfect cross between traditional country mysticism and modern ethereal pop, aided by prodigious looping. The former might just be a playful exploration of the Chicago landscape, but it too stood to gain from the melding of styles. Andrew provided a rare explanation for the song, offering that it was inspired by a Thai exchange student that uttered what is now the title of the EP, despite that Pulaski Road is apparently a rather run-down, unappealing stretch.

Bird seemed caught between his two halves, preferring his old-timey country/folk esoterics over his much more modern take on indie rock, but still holding on to both and progressing neither. In keeping with the new album, several songs were performed with the entire group crowding around one mic, as was done for the encores of the last tour and once upon a time with the Bowl of Fire. While I think the gimmick is cool, it gradually began to feel like too much of a gimmick, and the absence of bassist Alan Hampton's voice in the mix made the harmonies less impressive than they should have been.

On one hand, it's a good thing that Bird isn't just relying solely on his biggest trick (looping), but on the other, it's hard to feel like he isn't retreading ground already covered instead of pushing somewhere new. The Hands of Glory are good, but instrumentally and vocally, the previous group had more going for it. New singer/guitarist Tift Merritt might serve as a good foil for Bird, and drummer Kevin O'Donnell might be a great old-school drummer, but pedal steel player Eric Heywood was too far in the background, and with Hampton relegated exclusively to double bass, the band didn't have quite the same sonic power of the last lineup. It's hard not to miss Dosh's elaborate drumming and keyboard work, Jeremy Ylvisaker's exquisite guitar and effects, or Mike Lewis' occasional brass and woodwind excursions. Bands move on and change and grow, and it can be good to try something new, but I think The Hands of Glory still have some growing in to do.

Scores (including some recent releases for reference/fun/why not):
Jesse Woods: B+
Andrew Bird: B
Hands of Glory: B-
I Want to See Pulaski at Night EP: B+
Initial impressions of Things Are Great Here, Sort Of...: C

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