COURTESY OF ANDREW BIRD

COURTESY OF ANDREW BIRD

October 15, 2016

Darling, Andrew Bird is By Your Side

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This past Tuesday at the State Theatre, Sinkane opened up the night’s show sounding an awful lot like I would have preferred to have them instead of Pumarosa opening for Glass Animals the week before.  With a sound more tangible and less clean than Glass Animals, Sinkane seems like it would have made a solid pick.  The sentiment may not have been shared by all that many, though. In the moments before they took to the stage, a kindly usher standing behind me advised, “If you don’t have earplugs—they’re loud.”

The band, with front man Ahmed Gallab, exudes a kind of warm, accessible music when you listen to their recorded work, and does a fairly good job of transmitting that same atmosphere when playing live.  Their sound is a blend between jazz, funk, Sudanese pop, and German experimental rock, which collide together to create an experience that hits you at once familiar and unique.  Gallab sometimes loses control over his own voice, biting down a bit too hard on the microphone and letting its quality turn half to nasal, but he has a strong base and vocally the group’s shining moments are when they open up to an often-chosen fallback of harmonizing with each other.  The other three members of his band are all standouts, and his guitarist can stop time on a riff.  The crowd began more or less ambivalent and by the time the group had played three or four songs, they were cheering and clapping enthusiastically between each one.  By the time they’d wrapped up their set, a few audience members were even giving them a standing ovation.  The ushers in the back decided that the sound check had been a fluke and the sound had been lowered significantly since.

Right at 9:10, the headliner forged the path for us to fall into his set by drawing out a series of looped sounds, one of the techniques he’s well known for employing in his recorded albums along with his tours.  The crowd gained an expectancy that felt like a compressed spring, waiting for what would be the first piece of the set.  As soon as he stepped before the microphone and sang “Pull it together, darling,” from his 2016 album, Are you Serious, a group of audience members screamed to release some of the energy.

Andrew Bird delivered.  He lives in the music he allows you to see, and unlike many other artists, he and his band thrive in a live setting.  Martin Dosh, the group’s percussionist, is even more on point live than when he’s recorded.  You feel that he’s the guiding force for consistency through the other members, translating Bird’s wide range of energy levels to relate again to guitarist Jeremy Ylvisaker and bassist Mike Lewis as well as the audience and even back to Bird himself.  The two play in a manner that is so attuned to each other it would be hard to imagine the group succeeding in such a cohesive sound without either one of them.  Ylvisaker and Lewis played what turned out to be a surprisingly docile role in the overall sound given how they shine through the recorded music, but did so cleanly and with enough fullness to prove their necessity on the stage.  Lewis’s here-and-there tenor harmonizing creates a beautiful texture against Bird’s half twang and somehow helps to ground the lyrics.

The group rolled out “A Nervous Tic,” “Are you Serious?” and “Lusitania” without batting an eye.  In “Nervous Tic,” Bird cuts himself short in the middle of the piece and begins exhibiting exactly the kind of tic he’s drawling about, and he took a moment after playing “Are you Serious?” to explain that he’d written the song “as a kind of fantasy” about interacting with the audience in a way unlike his customary and almost austere distancing, but “I still can’t do it—oh well, you can only push yourself so far,” a self-admittance that drew sympathy and laughter from his audience.

The quality of their pieces takes on a slightly sun-kissed nature in their more roving pieces, and explores a pure agility of sound throughout their set.  The audience swayed with the mood, carried on by the simple performance of it all.  Occasionally someone would let out a gleeful squeal when one song picked up at the point that another ended.  Constantly, the one to slide one piece into another was Dosh, who in the midst of any bridge could be seen keeping a close eye on Bird’s hands to stack the beat directly on top of each note he finger picked on the violin.

“Left Hand Kisses,” in which Bird sings with Fiona Apple, was unfortunately missing the other, extraordinary vocal half of the piece.  He seemed more than conscious of the fact, disclaiming a bit wryly beforehand, “And of course, Fiona couldn’t be here tonight.” The audience laughed at that comment like they were privy to a backstory which doesn’t really exist.

Bird, to me, has taken the position as the single artist who’s carved a space for the more traditional violin and the more colloquial whistling to be seen as standout instruments in contemporary music.  Classically trained, Bird knows how to manipulate his violin if he knows how to play any instrument, letting its sound sometimes float, sometimes grow sap-sticky, and honing it knife-sharp to cut you to the quick.

His mastery of the violin is even apparent in how he uses it and its sound as a stage prop.  While playing out “Why?” he begins to affect drunkenness, staggering a bit as he switches between picking his violin, bowing it, and casting off the instrument altogether.  At one point he began bowing and then threw away the notes by playing the instrument held off to his side, letting the drunken, sodden frustration of the song pull him down.  After wrapping the piece up, he looked out at the theater and said of his self-reflecting upon creating it, “I was like, ‘okay—I’ve got some issues.’’

Edging towards the endpoints of his set, Bird created a cleansing set of loops with “Three White Horses,” as the stage lit up with pure white light and he became awash with a deep red spotlight, leaving us to wallow in the weight of what words had been filling the room.  “Valleys of the Young” has a strangely prophetic feel to it and at the same time it just seems simply reflective of recent events; Bird and his partner Katherine Tsina have a young son.  The irony of their reaction seemed to be lost on some in the audience as they cheered to Bird’s contrast of the problems that parents versus non-parents face; “you’ll live across a great divide/ and the problems that seem like luxuries/ they’re off getting stoned and hugging trees.” If he had a reaction to the cheers, he didn’t much show it, instead focused on Dosh, who finally had a chance to really showcase his solo talent with a long run that drove everyone wild.  He can go.

The set, although a bit long in all, was incredible.  There’s no doubt that Bird and his group strike an impressive presence.  They’re versatile, they’re professional, and they’re captivating.  It’ll be a pleasure to see what else they’ve got lined up for the future.

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