The Music of Andrew Bird

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Saturday, October 8th, 2011 marks the international premiere of the concert documentary Andrew Bird: Fever Year at the Vancouver International Film Festival. I'll be there in the front row.

Mr. Bird's main instrument is the violin. He plucks. He bows. He feeds musical phrases into a loop pedal and adds layer after layer after layer. (I wrote about this in another piece: The Fugue Fugue). He whistles. He sings. He plays guitar. And xylophone. He performs solo and with backing musicians.




He mostly plays his own compositions, which can loosely be termed indie rock (I've also heard the term "chamber pop" applied) but his influences are incredibly varied. He does gypsy swing jazz, and put out a few albums in that style. He does traditional reels and folk songs and has an album of those. He played a Ravel string quartet as a graduating project for his degree in violin performance at Northwestern, and later used it to create a composition of his own. Watch him blow away a Bonnaroo audience with Ravel!




He doesn't take himself too seriously. He did a spot on Chicago public television kids' show as Dr. Stringz, who can play and repair any stringed instrument. He regularly uses that bit as a live intro to his song Fake Palindromes. He recently covered It's Not Easy Being Green. He plays and acts multiple roles in Margaret Cho's video I'm Sorry.


This Saturday Night Jukebox entry isn't focussed on the Enneagram, but I'd guess Andrew Bird is a Five: the Investigator, the Observer, the Specialist. He's famously shy and reclusive, rarely giving interviews. His lyrics reference history and science as often as they do relationships - and sometimes are completely abstract, and still compelling. He displays the Five's love of exploration for its own sake, playing his songs differently every performance. Five musicians can plunge right in and practice for nine hours at a time, forgetting the rest of the world exists. They're sound scientists, often drawn to technology they can use to open up ever more possibilities. For instance, the film below shows him performing at the Guggenheim museum, with all of those victrola style horns set up to amplify his sound as part of an installation called the "Sonic Arboretum."




I've yet to see him in concert, but this uncut performance from Washington DC's 930 club is available on NPR's All Songs Considered website (a tremendous archive of free, high quality live recordings, interviews and studio sessions). He plays for one and three quarter hours, without a break.


The documentary's title refers to a mysterious illness that plagued him in 2009 - a year that had him perform 165 concerts. He estimates he had a fever of 103 degrees for 150 days that year. He also winds up on crutches from an onstage injury. He may not look like a workhorse, but the stamina and determination required to keep up a schedule like that, much less while battling a severe and dogged fever, is herculean. Combine that with the finesse to play with such intricacy and precision, and the dexterity of mind to keep finding further nuances and possibilities in songs he's played hundreds and hundreds of times - all of this really does lead me to believe he's the reincarnation of Johann Sebastian Bach. On that note, let's end with a performance he did in a European church.


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