High-Wire Act

In his barn or on stage, Andrew Bird fears no glockenspiel

Explains Andrew Bird: "There's a bit of a high-wire act involved in what I'm doing."

He's talking about the performance we'll see at Solar Culture March 25. "I've got the guitar slung around my back and (am) playing the violin and looping it, playing glockenspiel and whistling, and sometimes, things don't work. It demands a little more from the audience. There's a certain intensity to it. "

"America's No. 1 Party Band," as he jokingly calls his solo set, will be a thrill a minute.

"Somehow, I like situations that engage the audience in that way," says Bird. "That's real. That actually places it at a moment in time, not like a band playing their 12 songs off the record. That's why I like the Handsome Family and like Howe Gelb--the kind of randomness that helps make it a real event right there in front of you."

Bird last brought his high-wire act to town a year ago when he opened for Vic Chesnutt. In 2002, he came through with a full band, including Nora Connor's vocals, in support of his extravagantly layered fourth release, The Swimming Hour, a romp through the tail end of his quest to devour and process about 300 years of music history into songs that would play well enough in rock clubs to make girls dance.

Bird learned violin at age 4, began composing at 6 and was practicing eight hours a day by the age of 15. In high school, he says, "My friends were all goth. They listened to The Cure, Smiths, Cocteau Twins and This Mortal Coil. I listened to Mozart's Requiem, Dvorak, Gorecki. Same thing, right? The last time I checked in with pop-culture was when I was a skater and had a few Police tapes in sixth grade. I was also a pretty good breakdancer."

While training at a conservatory and earning a Northwestern University music degree, he says, "I spent most of my time in a cinder-block practice room, not practicing my excerpts and etudes, but improvising and experimenting. I developed an appetite for Anglo-Irish ballads, south Indian ragas, Hungarian gypsy, early 20th-century modern, and it goes on. Then I discovered early jazz, calypso, country blues, Threepenny Opera. I collected 78s."

At 19, Bird joined a punk ska band. It was to be a life-changing experience.

"The band made sense until I joined it," he says. "I kind of confused things a bit, but it was fun. Age 19 and getting into clubs and playing; girls were dancing!"

As opposed to "demonstrating" his technique, Bird found performing irresistibly seductive. Predictably, he also learned from the experience.

"I think the first time I played the first song I wrote in front of people was at the Abbey Pub in Chicago," Bird says. "At 19, I had kind of a stripped-down acoustic version that I was heading up, and it was this sort of quiet waltz that I wrote at the family farm (in upstate Illinois). It was around St Patrick's Day, if not on it, and there were all these burly, barrel-chested, Irish-American men who were looking for a fight, and I'm doing this sort of tender little waltz, and I swear I heard someone from the balcony say, 'You can't fucking sing.' That stuck with me."

No doubt, something of that memory accounts for all the hours Bird has spent of late singing to himself in the family barn, in between feeding the chickens and working on his next record. He's been at it nearly three years now, having twice scrapped the effort entirely and meanwhile spun some of its spillover into the most remarkable, and successful, invention of his career to date.

Intended to tide him over until the real thing was ready for release, the intimate Weather Systems captured a snapshot of Bird's new direction and, not insignificantly, his hard-won vocal agility. He had planned to release it himself, but Weather Systems fell into the hands of Ani DiFranco, who invited him to release it on her Righteous Babe label. Now, Bird says, his three-year project is ready for release (he's label shopping), and his new material will be central to the Tucson set.

"I just feel like I'm getting younger in my attitude," Bird explains of his new approach. "I stopped this consuming music and then spitting it out type of process and started to think about music in a different way, one that has more possibilities."

That's all good for the audience, because it allows the live set to focus on them.

"I started off doing the early jazz stuff and wanting to play like Louis Armstrong and Lester Young ... but I don't have the myth of the jazz musician kind of taking you on this journey into unknown territory. I do essentially have an improviser's impulse deep within me, yes, but the goal is to then to come up with a very concise melody that you're creating for the audience right there.

"Even though I'm writing less stylized songs now, I still like the medium of the three-to-four-minute pop song. ... Another thing about this solo thing is that you're seeing how I put the song together, you hear all the parts layering together, and I think that can be kind of interesting to watch, and it's also just the way I work in the barn. I just create (all the layers) on stage with the loops. Sometimes, I have to make a few edits; I have to simplify to make it work."

And how does all this play to the club set?

"I have never really changed the type of venue I've been playing in. I just did a show at the (cavernous, noisy Chicago venue) Empty Bottle for the first time in five years, and I was a wreck about it. I was thinking, 'This is going to be awful.' And completely to my surprise, people were completely quiet. I don't ask that of any audience. I don't get upset when people are chatty as a rule. But the whole show was completely silent. I played (an outdoor venue) in September, like 1,500 people, and I didn't expect it to be quiet, but it got completely quiet, and I never thought that would happen."

Bird just finished a five-week tour in Europe--an experience that he describes as "just completely inhumane. From late January all the way through to March, it was a show every night and driving eight to 10 hours a day all over Europe. ... I need a vacation pretty bad."

So this short western swing--Austin, Tucson, L.A. --is his vacation.

"The idea was not to have such a hectic tour and hang out in Tucson," he says. "I need some Vitamin D so bad."

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