With the exception of maybe Bruce Springsteen, there is no musician I enjoy seeing live more than Andrew Bird, whom I’ve been fortunate enough to see play at least a half-dozen times over the past ten years throughout New York City. Each performance is a real show for the senses— attendees are not only treated to his vocals and violin playing, but are also able to visually observe the physicality that goes into the music he creates. He plucks, bows, claps, sings, whistles, strums, and twists the knobs of and stomps on the looping and distortion pedals that surround him on the stage.
Beyond his own physical movements, there is so much more to visually observe at his shows in other ways too. The spaces in which he chooses to play can really vary. I’ve seen him play summertime shows outdoors in parks and indoor shows at the tiny Le Poisson Rouge and the huge King’s Theatre. Perhaps the most striking and memorable concert of his that I attended though was at Riverside Church on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, which took place just before Christmas in 2012. This show was part of his short Gezelligheid tour. (The word “gezelligheid” is Dutch and roughly translates to “a feeling of coziness”.)
Prior to the tour, Mr. Bird noted, “What I hope to do with these shows is adapt my music completely to the atmosphere of the space and the season. I’m inspired to do this based on childhood memories of performing Handel’s Messiah in various churches on an annual basis…I want the audience to be both lifted and comforted as we head into another cold and dark winter. I feel the space should be sacred so the audience can experience my music in a different atmosphere.”
As you can see in these pictures, the set-up was spectacular. In the enormous Catholic cathedral, Bird took the stage, standing among what must have been two dozen horn speakers of various sizes and two prominently situated Janus Spinning Horns. Initially, seeing these rotating speakers, which I soon discovered Bird could manipulate the spinning speed of using a foot pedal, I figured it was just a fun visual. But after further listening, I realized that the spinning was actually manipulating the sound coming out of it, creating a doppler effect.
Though Bird’s performance that night at the church featured lovely performances with vocalist Tift Merritt and vocalist/upright bass player Alan Hampton, some my favorite songs were the ones he performed solo. Making excellent use of the Janus Spinning Horns, Bird performed, as his third song of the evening, “Beyond the Valley of the Three White Horses,” from his Hands of Glory album that was released earlier that year. Midway through the song, listeners heard a sudden change in the melody where a single tone was warped by the spinning horns. To that, Bird added some whistling, a few light taps on a xylophone, and then brought in another layer of melody on his violin. The effect was melancholy, etherial and, as Mr. Bird intended, wonderfully gezelligheid.
Julie Kocsis is the Assistant Editor for college music at W.W. Norton and Managing Editor of The Avid Listener.