On Tuesday night at the 9:30 Club, opening band Patrick Watson once again begged the question What the hell are they putting in the water in Montreal, and where can I get some? Watson recently released Adventures in Your Own Backyard, an album that makes you want to lay on the floor in the dark and ponder really important things. He and his band were the perfect lead-in for the similarly-situated Andrew Bird, and if you were to listen to the collective slower works from both artists in an infinite loop, you may be on your floor for a month. But once you got up you’d probably understand quantum physics.
Patrick Watson entered a completely dark stage lit by nothing but Tron-like gloves comprised of tiny light bulbs. It was an eerie way to make an entrance, but it worked – the normally talkative DC crowd actually quieted down and listened to the opening delicate piano strains of “Lighthouse”, then remained mesmerized as the rest of the band joined in for a fuller orchestration of that track. Much of the set evolved in the same manner – quiet, meandering piano intros woven with the lead singer’s falsetto, followed by lush, beautiful arrangements from the rest of the quintet. They even managed to pull off a subtle light show, which is rare in an opener. Andrew Bird is apparently a fan – he came out onto the artist’s balcony to listen to a good part of the set, and mentioned them at least three times during his performance. Patrick Watson is coming back to 9:30 as a headliner in September, so check them out – you’ll not find better use of $15 in this town on a Wednesday night.
"He conjugates perfectly" is not something commonly said about rock stars, but that precision is evident in everything Andrew Bird puts forth. Opening his own set with a pair of absolutely gorgeous solo pieces, he began “Sifters”, from his new album Break it Yourself, by playing a violin track into a custom-built double-sided spinning Janus Horn Speaker (which is what would result if a two-headed gramophone and a salad spinner mated). Once that started spinning, the disembodied violin pulsed sound across the audience, before floating finally into the abyss and being overtaken by Bird’s guitar. When Bird sings, “What if you were 75 and I were 9?” you realize it’s almost jarring to hear proper grammar these days – every other person in the United States would say What if I was – but when you pay attention to these little details, it highlights just how brilliant this guy is. Andrew Bird may be the most eloquent performer to ever rock a pair of New Balance trainers on the 9:30 stage.
In the past ten years as a solo artist, Bird has filled his songs with more whistling than a Clint Eastwood movie soundtrack, and seeing him live you realize it’s because he’s trying to create sound with every cell of his body, in any way possible. As he twitched and spun on stage, music seemed to shoot out of his arms – there were times when he was so caught up in gesturing to a passage he forgot to play one of the four instruments surrounding him, so he whistled until his arms could catch up. Seeing Bird perform live is like watching someone have a very elegant spasm on stage, while simultaneously playing some of the loveliest stuff you’ve ever heard. Often he would play his violin with his guitar strapped to his back to make changes quicker, and although he was very ably backed at this show, he came off at times as a one-man band. On several songs he was so wound up it seemed likely he’d sprout an additional pair of arms and grab more instruments, just to get more stuff out.
Playing beneath four swirling helixes that looked like unicorn DNA, Bird and his band performed about ninety percent of the new album, with a few older pieces and some covers thrown in. The unfortunate thing is that I now like Break it Yourself a bit less than I did before I saw the songs performed live – the album is solid, but leaves you wanting each track to be more fleshed out, more there. The live show put meat on all the bones, and the songs came out in anthemic swirling versions that, to me, were more satisfying than the sparser album versions. “Danse Carribe”, for example, is a mildly country affair on the album, but live it took on a different persona, moved to the city and got its own apartment. In short, it rawked.
Bird followed a perfect, hip-shaking rendition of “Eyeoneye” with a cover of “It’s Not Easy Being Green”, which morphed from conversational to jazzy to bluesy and back again. After a couple of songs to incorporate “the old-timey part of the evening,” with upright bass and a heart-felt acoustic version of “Give it Away”, Bird covered Alpha Consumer’s “Crown Salesman” with the conviction of a preacher. Once he turned the spinning speaker back on, though, with its ominous wailing in the background, the stage was lit entirely in blood red and you’d have been hard-pressed to figure out which end of the religious spectrum was in charge, except for Bird’s heavenly voice.
The main set ended with a sparkly, frenetic version of “Fake Palindromes” that blew the doors off eastern European folk, and the light show that accompanied gave the impression of snow swirling inside the club – it was a serious Narnia moment. The bluegrass-themed encore began with an acoustic cover of Townes van Zandt’s “If I Needed You”, but ended with a dizzy mess of swirling, blurry noise, to keep everyone from getting weepy, and to send everyone on their way after a terrific night of music.
At one point in the evening Bird announced, "How about that? I like music." Guess what, Andrew? It likes you back.