Every year, Savannah Music Festival takes over the best venues in town and presents to you a shit ton of world-class music. As your tour-guide, I feel it is my duty to turn you on to some of the shows I am most anticipating. So hop on the trolley, take your seats and listen in to this guided history of the music of Andrew Bird. As I put on my headset and turn down Broughton Street, let me remind you that gratuities are accepted and encouraged. “If you like what you hear so far, make it rain in my tip jar.”
It was the summer of 2005. I had just graduated from high school. My buddy had a Volkswagen of some kind and we would get high and drive all over New England in search of cold water to jump into. We were still virgins. Ok, he wasn’t.
“You ever heard of Andrew Bird?” he asked me. I hadn’t but that didn’t surprise me. He was always showing me new stuff to listen to. He put a CD into the slot as we raced over and around the Green Mountains of Vermont. It was one of those moments where you can’t ignore the synchronicity; the way your feelings connect to the music. The violin textures were like the trees rushing by. The guitars sounded like town hall and the whistles rode along with us on the hilly horizon. The sound became my thoughts and I inhaled the melodies along with that sweet Vermont outdoor (the kine bud with the little red hairs). Eventually, the CD ended. “That was sick,” I said.
“You think that was sick?” He retrieved another CD and a completely different sound burst forth. Hectic pre-war gypsy jazz with shredding violin solos, murderous lyrics, and bombastic vocals transported us out of Vermont and into some Bohemian tent-village with a bonfire raging. “Who’s this?” I asked. He flashed his big teeth from the driver’s seat and said, “Same dude.”
From that day to this I have considered myself an Andrew Bird fan and as a musician I was intrigued to know how an artist could span such wide genre gaps from one album to the next. My friend, all the way back in 2005 and very intuitively I might add, piqued my interest by showing me the extremes of Bird’s discography and left me to go through it record by record to find the common thread. It becomes clear that what ties it all together is Andrew Bird’s violin virtuosity.
He began studying violin through the Suzuki Method at the age of four. This is basically intense ear training that molds a student’s fluency by way of repetition such that complex classical melodies become as easy to recall as folk songs. Andrew Bird says that he chewed his cereal to these melodies and was constantly humming or whistling to himself as far back as he can remember. He continued on to receive a degree from Northwestern in classical violin performance. After college, it appears that chamber music was too isolating for him and he sought out a scene for his talents. He was picked up to collaborate and tour with a neo-swing band popular in the late 90’s called The Squirrel Nut Zippers, and after “learning the ropes” so to speak he put together his own band with a similar ‘ode to pre-war jazz’ style. The band was called Andrew Bird’s Bowl of Fire. Here’s one of my favorite examples of those early tracks.
After 2 albums and the 2000 switch, the band’s sound changed dramatically, most evident in Bird’s songwriting and vocals. Where the first two albums sound like he was donning a persona, perhaps of a German cabaret singer, his voice on The Swimming Hour sounds like he’s just being himself. Rocking, crunchier guitar parts replace the jangling Django-esque comping from before. Female vocals provide harmonies and the album takes on a more indie-rock vibe. Check out my favorite song from this album for your academic pleasure.
In 2003, after some years of critical acclaim but discouraging tours, the band was offered a gig opening up for a prominent Chicago band called The Handsome Family. The story goes that other members of the band couldn’t make the date so Bird decided to play the show by himself. He references this experience as the first time he incorporated whistling into his music, saying that he felt self-conscious about the sparse sound playing alone and started whistling along with his songs to keep the audience engaged. This will become a trademark part of his sound in all the albums released after this, no longer with the moniker Bowl of Fire, just Andrew Bird. One could further argue that the necessity to play by himself directly influenced the sound and production of his next couple albums, on which he recorded all the instruments as well as relying heavily on loop pedals to arrange the songs. Here’s another musical example of Andrew Bird’s development.
The next couple albums seem to be Andrew Bird exploring the limits of what he can produce himself. It follows that an artist will eventually reach and try to stretch those limits by collaborating with the talents of others. This is evident on Bird’s forthcoming album Are You Serious?, which features a duet with Fiona Apple. Check it out.
Andrew Bird appears at The Lucas Theatre March 29th touring in support of this latest album, Are You Serious, streaming now at NPR. The first show of a tour that will take him all over the world is also, I believe, the first time he’s ever played Savannah. I’m concluding my lecture, parking the trolley right at Historic Reynolds Square and encouraging you not to miss this show. I caught a peek at the setlist and I’m happy to report that many of my favorite tracks are listed. Get your tickets here and I’ll see you at the Lucas.