I attended my first Andrew Bird concert back in 1998 by accident. My friends had an extra ticket to see the Squirrel Nut Zippers and Bird happened to be the opening act. 16 years later, Jimbo Mathus, founding member of the Squirrel Nut Zippers, opened for Andrew Bird at the Klein Auditorium in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Both performers thanked each other during their sets and you could feel that it wasn’t perfunctory; these guys are friends. I was able to catch only the last song of Jimbo’s set due to a SNAFU with my press pass, but I arrived in time to see Mathus blow into a harmonica while ripping out some great blues riffs on guitar while the Tri-State Coalition jammed behind him.
Following Mathus’ set, Holly Laessig and Jess Wolfe of Lucius stood at the center of the stage behind synthesizers and tom drums. From their bleached blonde hair to their colorful oversized 60’s dresses down to their chunky white heels, they were a mirror image of each other. Furthering the illusion, guitarist Andrew Burri stood to the left of the stage while drummer Dan Molad stood to the right in matching vests and black shirts. Guitarist Peter Lalish took up position behind Laessig and Wolfe, wearing a suit and glasses.
The five piece band from Brooklyn rely heavily on percussion; at times each member of the band was pounding away on a drum except for Lalish on guitar. The pounding rhythms give their rock music a tribal feel. The visual mirror image is further echoed in the vocals; Laessig and Wolfe sing in unison, adding power to their songs. The band was met with enthusiastic cheers and several ovations during their set. For their last song, the band stepped to the front of the stage, away from the microphones and drums. Laessig and Wolfe demonstrated impressive harmonies that gave them some much needed diversity from their other songs.
Andrew Bird took the stage alone with the overhead lights barely illuminating his silhouette. As he set a violin part on loop, his face was momentarily hit with light. Bird played with his eyes closed as he added more and more parts to this one man symphony. After the opening instrumental, a member of the audience shouted a birthday greeting to Bird. The lanky musician faintly smiled as the rest of the crowd burst into a full rendition of Happy Birthday, jokingly wiping away a tear at the end. He immediately broke into his next song, “Plasticities.” Beside his looping pedals, there was a switch for the lights; the stage was suddenly aglow with warm light coming from clear light bulbs strung all over the stage. The metal flowers that were part of the stage set were also surrounded by lights. Bird switched between violin and guitar, vocals and trilling whistle as he danced about the stage. He switched on the victrola speakers at the back of the stage and they rotated wildly.
Members of his band, The Hands of Glory, joined him on stage as another set of lights was turned on. The giant flood lights were not just part of the decorations, they are fully functional. Tift Merritt added her husky vocals and acoustic guitar with Alan Hampton on upright bass, Kevin O’Donnell on drums and Eric Heywood on pedal steel and guitar. The configuration gives the music a folk feel, at times reminiscent of Johnny Cash and June Carter. Throughout the set, tracks were included from Bird’s new album, Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of…, which consists of covers from the Handsome Family. Bird explained to the audience that they have been influential on his music.
There was a definite country feel to the five-song acoustic set-within-the-set, where the band gathered around a single microphone to the right of the stage. Bird confessed that this is his favorite part of the show. When the band members returned to their individual microphones, members of the audience began dancing along the side aisles of the venue. The stage lights increased in intensity throughout the set, until they were practically blinding. The entire auditorium was bathed in warm glowing light as Bird encouraged the audience to sing along to “Tables and Chairs.” It was refreshing to see an artist take such care with their stage show. Even with a simple light set up, it had a dramatic visual impact that added to the whole performance.