Just 364 days ago, Andrew Bird set up shop at Chicago’s 4th Presbyterian Church for what he called his Gezelligheid shows. That sneezy looking word apparently translates to coziness (or something like it) when taken out of the Dutch, so what better place than a big, quiet, tight-set church? I wouldn’t exactly call the setting cozy; in fact, it’s a cavernous place with a balcony. The attitude of Bird and his fanbase, however, definitely embodies that spirit. It helps that everyone is ramped up for the holidays, peppermint and kindness oozing out of everyone’s pores. But the sweater and scarf, polite indie-pop set that always seem to turn out for Andrew Bird shows carry that sort of attitude, a warmth and excitement that just comes down to throwing the word cozy around.
Anyway, Bird’s now iconic, functioning horn decorations (co-produced by Specimen Products) triumphantly cluttered the stage, over 25 of them in all. A small sock monkey sat near the middle, at the pulpit, more or less. The crowd wasn’t quite restless, but the funky, world rhythms pouring out as intro music seemed to keep people up and excited. Or maybe, like me, they were just avoiding sitting down in the pews, knowing all too well the stiff, legroom-less two and a half hours to come. (I swear that’s the last I’ll mention of the seating.)
Compatriot hometown hero, noted jazz musician, and Tortoise guitarist Jeff Parker took the stage first, dressed for the occasion in a neat, black suit. Seated with his guitar and a panel full of pedals, Parker began to churn out odd, off-kilter tones that chimed like church bells. The lights lowered as he added jazzy licks over the top. His unfortunately too brief opening set came together as a sort of fusion of ambience, drone, and jazz improvisation, a mellow, often beautiful atmospheric start to the evening. Later, insistent bass tones galloped underneath lightning strike-picked, almost Latin arpeggios. The crowd gave Parker a warm reception, but it was all too clear that this wasn’t what they were there for. “Uh…” Parker muttered blankly into the microphone as his set came to an end, “Andrew Bird is up next.”
Photo by Meghan Brosnan
The brief intermission that followed built the anticipation to an audible murmur. Eventually, the dapper, scarfed star of the night clambered on stage, politely nodding to the crowd. The pieces of Andrew Bird’s solo music are so well-worn now, but the first song of his set had everything that one would expect. He began by looping a carefully executed, highly rhythmic groove of violin plucks and whistles before adding a layer of orchestral violin chords over the top. As everything built to a wall of gorgeous sound, he calmly reached down to set the Doppler effect, spinning horn to high and took off his shoes, all while whistling in perfect tune.
Later, Bird addressed his followers. “Hey everybody,” he smiled, with his baritone. “Pleasure to see you. Welcome back, if you are back.” He even added his reasoning for doing the whole Gezelligheid thing over again: “It lets me stretch out,” he said, before introducing longtime fan favorite “Why?”, announcing that the old song helped him relax. Upon recording the loop foundation of the song, Bird realized the timing was a little different. “I guess I was more relaxed than I thought I was,” he chuckled, getting a big laugh from the eager crowd. The man is, flatly put, a consummate pro, a performer. One could even call him an actor in this one-man, call-and-response song. He threw his whole body into the line “damn you for being so easygoing,” rocking violently back and forth at times, holding his head in a cupped hand at others, gesturing manically to emphasize points.
Photo by Meghan Brosnan
Bird’s banter was spot-on throughout the night. On the fact that the number of horns onstage keeps growing, Bird explained,”The horns have been multiplying. It’s been a fertile year.” On a music video idea for the new song “Desperation Breeds”, he painted the audience a picture: ”I’m the bee-keeper, and I’ll get Zach Galifianakis to be the bee, and I’ll just chase him around. It’ll all be in slow motion, of course.” That song was a pulsing, plucking violin loop featuring a very bee-like whirring slide and lyrics that could only come from this witty, well-read lyricist. He rhymed peculiar incantation with the title, a definite achievement. Later, other new songs were introduced as containing interlocking themes (could a concept album be brewing in Bird-land?). “The Lazy Projector” took on the unreliability of human memory (“forgetting, embellishing, lying machine,” he crooned), while the previously titled “Oh Baltimore” is about “being in a self-destructive feedback loop.”
Older songs did get the majority of applause, though, especially the Mysterious Production of Eggs staple “Masterfade” and the bluesy “Headsoak” from 2001’s The Swimming Hour. Bird, however, was clearly more excited about the new material. After bringing Parker back onstage for the rest of the set, Bird revealed exactly how fresh some of the material was. “We’re going to do some stuff I briefly showed to Jeff before the show,” he explained. “That’s not a disclaimer. That’s a fact.” What came next was what I’d call an Andrew Bird sort of drone. The looped wall of sound produced by the two Chicago masters (one who can do classical as well as pop, the other who can do jazz as well as post-rock) sounded so right, their powerful instruments working together in a pretty, spinning ocean. The horns spun, the swashes of violin and brushes of guitar swirling out over the church.
But Bird also knows that so many other artists wouldn’t have the opportunity to do something like this, that it is incumbent on that cozy fanbase to want it. “I have a pretty cool audience who let me do what I want,” he glowed. “I’m just saying I’m lucky.” The set closed with “Section 8 City”, its cheery whistling and hand clapping melding with Parker’s probably somewhat improvised chording and Bird’s aching violin chords. The two left the stage, the horn spinning out the final loop of their work.
Bird’s encore was much more stripped down, simple. A single microphone was moved to the center of the stage, and the still barefoot Bird played acoustic, sans loop station. The first was a vibrant violin piece seemingly about going crazy. The second brought out the acoustic guitar, with lyrics about how “if you could see right through us, you’d run into your homes and lock your doors” and the wordless “na na na” chorus lilting and flowering. Charley Patton’s “Goin’ Home” closed things out, Bird’s violin fiddling and his voice crooning out a farewell to his cozy group of friends. Until next year, or maybe the next evening for those few that snagged extra tickets.
Photography by Meghan Brosnan.
Gallery by Meghan Brosnan