Thursday, February 5, 2009
Going to Carnegie Hall for the first time, I realized how sensually amazing of a performance setting it really is. Visually, its interior is beautiful, with intricately designed walls that escalate up to five levels of velvet seating, eventually reaching an intricately designed ceiling. Aurally the auditorium is equally spectacular. It's evident that the its spacial architecture was meticulously planned to generate clear and permeating acoustics throughout the room, which sound better than any other concert venue I’ve ever attended. Given this high caliber of performance space, it's no surprise that that Andrew Bird was chosen to play here, a performer fully capable of taking advantage of these acoustics with his musical prowess and huge instrumental capabilities.
Andrew Bird is an virtuostic multi-instrumentalist hailing from Chicago, Illinois. He began playing violin at the age of 4 and was classically trained throughout his youth. Part of what makes him so appealing is his wild creativity in finding different ways to play his violin. Whether plucking, strumming, using his bow, or actually whistling into it, his originality with the instrument is unquestioned. But the violin isn't the only instrument he carries confidently. Bird's vocals share much in common with the late, great Jeff Buckley, effectively deviating from powerful to delicate with continued control. He uses his resonant voice to sing intellectual and often cryptic lyrics that seem to be chosen more for their sound than their content. And of course, I can't go without mentioning Bird's insanely good whistling abilities which carry through and often guide many of his more complex songs into more friendly territory.
Fortunately, all of these characterics were present on Wednesday night. Around 9pm, Bird slowly entered the stage with his frail, stick-thin presence. The first thing that he did was take off his shoes on the small oriental rug that he was standing on, a way of becoming more comfortable with the unquestionably intimidating performance venue surrounding him. He opened the show by himself, playing an invigorating instrumental piece on his violin as a way of showcasing his unbelievable musical talent while simultaneously casting aside any remaining skeptics in the crowd.
Unfortunately, about 95% of the material that Bird performed with his back-up band Dosh came from his new, underwhelming 2009 album Noble Beast. While still implementing his great vocals and instrumental mastery, the songs simply don’t compare to his passionate and constantly exciting older material. The biggest and simplest problem with his new material is its absence of hooks. While his older songs would fearlessly jump from one mesmerizing musical feat to the next, his new tunes indecisively hover around ideas and melodies. At one point in the night, Bird even apologized to the crowd for playing so much of his new material.
While some songs that he played from Noble Beast were enjoyable ("Oh No", "Tenousness", "Effigy"), the excitement over these was constantly hazed over by the need in the back of my mind to hear material from the two albums that I so desperately wanted him to play. The three songs that he actually did perform from his past catalogue were mostly satisfying. While "Imitosis" and "Table & Chairs" (two of my favorites) were enjoyable, they felt a bit deflated compared to the versions heard on record with Bird often exchanging towering vocal climaxes with spoken words. It was only the final song “Palindromes” that really blew me away. Coming back for a second encore for the song, there was some serious energy running through the concert hall as Bird unleashed his searing violin slashes that open and carry through the song, bringing everyone to their feet and clapping for the first and only time of the night.
In no way do I want this concert review to sway people away from Andrew Bird. He is probably one of the most gifted musicians around today and has already put out two albums that I consider to be modern classics in the past four years (The Mysterious Production of Egss in 2005 and Armchair Apocrypha in 2007). However, the moral of the story here is that song selection is absolutely key to a concert’s success. Just like the saying goes, you’ve always got to ”keep the customer satisfied". While I left Carnegie Hall that night thoroughly impressed by Bird’s musianship and still a huge fan, his heavily-weighted newer song selection left me feeling a little gypped.
Andrew Bird - Oh No