When I first heard that Kanye West had referred to himself as “the Michael Jordan of music,” I immediately recalled the first time I heard Andrew Bird’s instrumental Useless Creatures album, which introduced me to a genius that transcends music. To see Bird playing violin, guitar and xylophone; singing; and whistling is like watching a worldclass ballerina, athlete, chess master, etc., at work. And yet even a shred of the kind of classless, shallow egotism that makes West, also notorious for saying “I am Michaelangelo,” so abhorrent is missing from Bird. That sadly antiquated humility made his performance at 116-year-old Chautauqua Auditorium in Boulder this past Friday especially fitting.
The first time I saw Andrew Bird in concert was at the Ogden in Denver in 2009; that show was oversold, packed with chatty hipsters and plagued by repeated sound problems. Bird’s poetry and music flow as naturally as snowmelt down Boulder Creek, but a rock club isn’t the best fit for him. But still, Bird’s exceptional musicianship, and sheer love of playing, came through, making for a special night.
The big, beautiful barn (at the feet of the Flatirons) that is Chautauqua Auditorium, however, felt like it was made for an Andrew Bird concert. The 40-year-old Chicago virtuoso, who has released four albums and two EPs in the past three years, followed a sweet opening set by Tift Merritt with three solo tunes that juxtaposed tasteful, mesmerizing loops with Bird’s strong, clear voice. The highlight of Bird’s solo turn was “Hole in the Ocean Floor,” from 2012’s Break It Yourself; the swirl of playful, neo-classical music and lyrics about “all God’s creatures roaring” brought to mind hikes in Flatirons just feet from Chautauqua.
“This is truly one of my all-time favorite places to play music and I’d play here every year if I could,” Bird told the sold-out audience. Then he brought out his new, old-timey band The Hands of Glory. Featuring standup bass, pedal steel, acoustic guitar and drums, the quartet’s indie-Americana sound, which includes just the right amount of country spunk, and enough stop-on-a-dime classical and jazz credibility to back up Bird, was perfect for such an old-timey venue.
But the group didn’t just focus on tunes from Things Are Really Great Here, Kind Of…, Bird’s new album of Handsome Family covers. Instead, it delved all the way back into Bird’s Bowl of Fire days with “Dear Old Greenland,” unleashed a fitting cover of Townes Van Zandt’s gentle classic “Colorado Girl,” and succeeded into translating eccentric beauties, like “Effigy,” from Bird’s more art-rock — think Blonde on Blonde meets Amnesiac — periods into a more Americana realm.
The moments when the whole band, save for the drummer, huddled around one microphone to convey tunes was particularly transporting. Especially for listeners sitting on ancient wooden benches in a venue so old you can almost smell the sawdust that once covered the floor back in the days when the likes of John Philip Sousa was on stage.
Let’s hope Bird does keep playing Chautauqua every year.