Andrew Bird, Union Chapel, London
Thursday 26 November 2009
Andrew Bird does things with a violin that would make Yehudi Menuhin blush. He picks, he plucks, he strums, he bows – and then he loops each line together to turn a solo performance into what sounds more like a symphony orchestra.
It's a remarkable feat to fashion something recognisable as indie-folk using such eclectic tools: the violin, a glockenspiel, and his preternaturally powerful whistle. There's a guitar, too, but Bird is already a few songs into his set before it even makes an appearance.
Union Chapel is a fine venue for any artist, but it's especially well-suited to those, like Bird, whose repertoire contains a few spiritual, atmospheric throwbacks to match the surroundings. He's previously been accused of creating "baroque pop", and certainly his vocal at its most conspicuous resonates like Rufus Wainwright's.
Bird removes his Footlights-style scarf and shoes after a song or two, which is perhaps a practical consideration, allowing him to bash his foot pedals more precisely when setting off a new loop. He also tries to explain the genesis and significance of many of the songs, but he mumbles and rambles so much that their meaning is no clearer than if he'd just started playing.
When he does that, however, his substandard banter is all but forgotten. His best songs are brilliantly moving, and he produces beautiful versions of "Oh No", "Anonanimal", "Tenuousness" and "Natural Disaster" – all from his most recent LP, this year's Noble Beast.
While it's often a joy when one of his tracks becomes shapeless and ephemeral in the middle, when the set becomes a bit shapeless and ephemeral in the middle it's less engaging. To my mind, "Why?", a lengthy, mildly comic number that he claims to have wheeled out at every one of his shows for the past seven or eight years, is actually a bit tedious; Bird has plenty of other, more winning numbers he could play.
After an internal debate, he picks one of those perfect tunes, "Plasticities", as his finale, while the one-song encore is "Going Home". Accompanied by his signature double-headed spinning gramophone, and a stuffed monkey splayed across the top of an amp, Bird has the air of a travelling circus performer, and after a while his loops and crescendoes are like a magician performing the same trick over and over again. It's still a great trick, though.
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