19 April 2007

When is a Bird not the Bird?

Posted in complications you could do without, I'm a sweetheart genius reckless jerk, man I hate playing vampire towns at 2:40 am by indecisive79

Whenever I go to a concert of any kind, I find myself imaging what it might be like to be able to stand up there and perform. I’ve had a certain amount of experience playing piano (badly) as well as rhythm guitar and djembe (competently, though still not with much actual talent) in my day, but I know that I could never be a performer in a real band. Why not? I could often come up with musical ideas and I was good with theory, but I could never force myself to practice. Thus, I never got good enough. And besides, I don’t think I could’ve handled the stage fright.

But these musings bring me to my inaugural concert review. I recently saw Andrew Bird. I won’t spend much time on the forgettable opening act except to say this: I suspect that Bird had her opening because her meandering, unpolished (in a bad way) set mirrored his own. There was only one good song (the only one that didn’t sound like all the others, just as in Bird’s set), and it was buried amidst a sea of slow, plodding, unimaginative melodies. We joked (though with some justification) that her opening song, with only voice and guitar, sounded as if it might actually be a soundcheck instead of an actual song. One bright spot, however: through earplugs, her voice sounded like Karen Paris of The Innocence Mission. Now if she could only get Karen’s husband Don to play guitar for her…

Andrew Bird, it turns out, is pretty good at playing the role of improv comedian. After one song, they had to pause for technical reasons, so he pulled out the ventriloquist-puppet-looking doll that he had been recently given and proceeded to describe it and its accessories (including a Bears sweatshirt, which garnered a lot of cheers). I think it was something he came up with on the spot, and it came off quite well. Unfortunately, it was the only real successful improv of the night. Heir to the real Bird he is not.

In one sense, my later comments might sound quite unfair and harsh, considering that I respect what Bird was trying to do and would love to see someone do it well. All but one or two songs featured attempts to present multi-layered sound loops through the use of a JamMan (or similar device). You can record several layers at the beginning of the song and bring them in and out on cue to fit in with the live instrumentals. It sounds great if you can pull it off, and I’ve seen it done well, most notably by Phil Keaggy and Christine Lavin. However, it’s also an incredibly difficult device to use, especially when playing with a band (although with just three members, they should be able to coordinate without too much trouble). Bird had to stop songs five times because he hadn’t quite mastered how to use the technology. Simple adequacy in playing your instrument is the bare minimum of what fans should expect when they’re shelling out anything more than five bucks, and they certainly didn’t get it at this show.

About two-thirds of Bird’s songs followed a very simple formula: cool violin-layered loops at the beginning, a couple verses with him playing riffs or chords on the guitar with the violin loops turned off, followed by a long drawn-out section where he improvs solo guitar over the looped violin. It was kinda cool the first two or three times he did it, but it got old quickly. The main reason: Bird simply can’t (or didn’t) improv very well. Some jam bands re-hash (pun intended) the same formula song after song for years, and it works because they are good enough musicians to make each song new. Take out the intricate new sounds of a skilled improviser, however, and you hear the same song for two straight hours. Occasionally something noteworthy would come out of these improv moments, but not often. The show just wasn’t musically-interesting enough to keep one’s attention for the entirety of a set. It seemed Bird was playing around in places he’d never been to before, and so was hesitant to do anything very assertive. This was perhaps most apparent in the most annoying part of the show: Bird’s vibrato whistling, which, while cool only on the first song but tedious thereafter, he seemed to throw in whenever he didn’t know what else to do. In fact, most of this show seemed like a warm up for the real thing, that the real tour starts tomorrow night, and the shows he’s been playing are mere practice.

This tour is apparently considered “green,” which means that, among other things, they use biodiesel fuel for their tour bus and they sell magnets, the proceeds of which go to development of alternative fuels. Supposedly the tour is carbon-neutral (though I doubt their calculations includes the energy that the venues use, the gas that attendees consume, etc.). These all sound like great ideas. However, since this concert was basically a rehearsal with fans watching, it seems like the more environmentally-friendly choice would have been to stay home to practice. At least it would’ve cut down on noise pollution in my neighborhood. Bird might eventually become a good performer in the future. Needless to say, after he wasted my three hours and $18 on a practice session, I won’t be there to see it.

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1 Comment »

  1. DC said,

    Maybe I’m glad I missed that Andrew Bird show at the Canopy Club a couple years ago…


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