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Review: Andrew Bird at the Harra Ballroom (Rochester Blog)

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Andrew Bird at the Harra Ballroom, Review

Singer/Songwriter, Andrew Bird, Kicks off his US Tour in Rochester

Andrew Bird. Photo Brandi EdissAndrew Bird started off his new US tour on Wednesday, October 12, at the Harra Ballroom in Rochester. I love Andrew Bird’s music; I love his lyrics, which are weird and subversive and academic-sounding, and I love his nonstandard instrumentation, which features violin (both bowed and picked) and whistling at least as much as guitar – but I must admit that I was a bit disappointed by this show.

Bird, who sometimes plays with a band, is mostly solo for this tour and he’s using a looper pedal pretty heavily. A few times during the show, he messed up the loops and had to stop and then start again. He was very good natured about  it, and the audience was understanding. After all, it was the first show of the tour and live looping requires really precise timing. It was obvious that these weren’t the mistakes of a bad musician struggling with simple stuff, but rather of an extremely talented musician doing something very difficult as a way to push his boundaries – it’s not something to hold against him. But even when the looper worked properly, I found myself wishing he would just turn it off and play normally. The sound was too cluttered, and I couldn’t help but feel like it lacked some kind of authenticity. For someone who has such a folk-influenced sound, it seemed like a lot of unnecessary gadgetry. I know that a looper pedal requires a lot more skill than simply playing along with pre-recorded tracks or samples, but in practice, that’s what it starts to sound like. It’s like, who do you think you’re fooling? I see your hands, man, I know you’re not playing all those parts at once.

Look, I appreciate the complexity that the use of a looper can bring to a song. It’s clear that this is why Bird, who’s been playing the violin since he was four years old, uses one. He enjoys the challenge of composing these multi-layered parts and somehow keeping track of them all live. I think he also enjoys the self-sufficiency of it. I think he feels like it allows him to expand his sound in some really interesting ways, and on some level, he’s probably right. It just seems a little gimmicky, is all. The best parts of the show were when Bird left the looper alone and played normally. This is a guy who wears a guitar on his back while he’s playing violin so he can swing it around and switch instruments without missing a beat, and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that he’s one of the world’s premiere whistlers. He really doesn’t need a looper to play interesting, complicated solo stuff. Still, at least he’s got a few different sounds to work with – at least he’s not looping guitar over guitar over guitar.

I also wish that Bird had done a bit more singing, and that he’d played more of his upbeat, accessible stuff. This probably isn’t relevant, since I don’t think that Bird worries too much about keeping his music accessible. He’s usually working pretty far along the Weird spectrum. Halfway through the show, he played his cover of “It’s Not Easy Being Green” from his Muppet tribute album. Apparently he also plays a French version, which he translated himself, when he’s in French Canada. He says that the existential elements of the song really come through in French.

His music might be avant-garde at times, but Bird himself seems approachable and down to earth. He didn’t put on a particularly high energy show, but the atmosphere was nicely casual and laid back. At one point, Bird called up Dosh, the guy who had opened for him, and they jammed for ten minutes. I can’t say that I had enjoyed Dosh’s opening set, which involved some live drumming and keyboard and a lot of clips which were either prerecorded by Dosh himself or sampled from somewhere, but it was still really cool to see the two artists do some impromptu collaborating. Bird said that they’ll play together for 10 minutes of each set this tour. I expect it’ll be very interesting to see what kind of sound they’ve developed together by the end of the tour.

Eric Moll is a Contributor to The Free George.

The Free George is the online magazine and visitors’ guide of Upstate NY, covering things from Albany to Lake Placid, including Saratoga, the Lake George region and the Adirondacks. Check out our City Blogs section for our extended coverage areas as well.

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