It’s nearly impossible to quantify the success of songwriter and multiinstrumentalist Andrew Bird in conventional terms like “chart success” and “album sales.” He has done pretty well for a guy you’d almost never hear on the radio in that regard, but his appeal springs from the way that he’s carved out a totally unique and irreproducible musical persona. He’s like an amalgamation of Jeff Buckley, Everett Sloan and Emitt Rhodes, with a smidge of Prince’s eccentric charm, so it’s plain to see how he could so easily sell out two dates in the town where he spent a few years and three albums doing superb grunt work for the Squirrel Nut Zippers.
The sold-out shows don’t begin or end with the Oct. 7 and 8 performances at the Cat’s Cradle, however. It’s becoming the norm every time he sets foot on stage. The crowd congestion at Wednesday night’s opening show made earlyarrival a necessity, as the human swell within 30 feet of the stage was both unsolvable and unwelcoming. Ne’er a soul was inclined to give up their spots at the conclusion of opener St. Vincent’s set, which itself was simultaneously moody and stimulating. The David Byrne-approved delicate indie princess Annie Clark exuded a deeply penetrating kind of musical psychosis that denies the slightness of her frame over the course of a particularly heavy set. She lamented “Your skin’s so fair, it’s not fair” during “Your Lips Are Red” one moment and dove down on her pedals during a psychedelic spasm to end “Marrows” the next. It was in interesting contrast for what was to come, as Clark’s performance was just as impetuous as Bird’s was majestic.
The stage was decorated in typical Andrew Bird fashion, with two massive gramophones as bookends and a smaller, two-headed one guarding a sock monkey oscillating with the tempo at back-center. The most curious thing about his stage set-up, and one of the most interesting aspects of Bird himself, is his love of boutique equipment. He sported a stack of Orange amps on one side, with a set of Schroeders on the other that surely induced a fit of envy in the hipster element present. His guitarist Jeremy Ylvisaker even sported a ’66 Airline in a shade of green that might have died alongside shag carpeting. While they are certain to contribute to his remarkable sound, their inclusions seem to be tied more closely to his smart, finely-tuned and self-effacing image than anything else.
Bird entered the stage from the Cradle’s overhead green room alone, violin in hand and drawing the audience into rapt attention from that very moment. He opened with a jittery number from his album The Mysterious Production of Eggs entitled “Why?,” which involved mandolin-like plucking on his violin while intermittently whistling against its strings. A note about his whistling: Along with his penchant for loopcrafting, it’s his calling card and he does it with amazing proficiency. Bird’s whistling has worked its way into nearly every one of his songs and it’s a large part of why his music is so undefined. Terms like “chamber pop,” “vintage” and “modern baroque” have come into play, all of which factor in but never quite summate individually.
For the first night of a two-night stand, Bird wasn’t shy about putting together a set list of crowd favorites. The first half of the show was marked by some of his more sprawling, layered pieces like “Masterswarm” and “Anonanimal” with an unplanned “Plasticities” snuck in between. Bird went noticeably lighter over the second half with “Oh No” and “Fitz and the Dizzyspells,” abandoning his perch at the front for a heavily-reverbed mic by the drum set for the latter’s whistle-y refrain. Clark and several band members joined Bird for a resolute “Scythian Empire” and a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Oh Sister,” but left Bird and his band to his own devices for the visionary “Tables and Chairs” and its references to “crumbling financial institutions.” It wasn’t the loudest, most complex or most difficultly-executed of his songs, but the weight of its words alone are a shining example of the overwhelming talent that Bird possesses and a fitting end to a night of beautiful music.
Andrew Bird, formerly of the Squirrell Nut Zippers, makes violin magic at the Cat’s Cradle. (photo by Ryan Snyder)