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
“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
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.